Legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, credited with great influence on music and with inventing the genre known as ‘west coast swing,’ has been compared to (and praised by) musical giants like Miles Davis. He had a brilliant career in the early to mid 1950s, and a successful comeback later, after years of fighting addiction, bad luck, and personal and professional setbacks. Born to be Blue outlines, in a slightly reimagined dramatisation, a key ten years of his life, from the beginning of his downward spiral of misfortune to his hard-won return to the stage.
The film begins with a brief, dismal scene in prison, showing Baker on the floor, apparently hallucinating. It switches almost immediately to a flashback of Baker’s successful years, but his grim future is established at the outset. The film’s begins in the late 1960’s, when Baker is attempting to make a comeback by appearing as himself in a film about his career – a situation which is an amalgam of fact and fiction. The frequent flashbacks provide background and explain how he got there.
Recognised as a musical genius while still young, and meeting, at first, with nothing but critical praise and success, Baker’s life takes a drastic turn for the worse when a casual girlfriend introduces him to heroin. He finds heroin not merely addictive, but ecstatic, and also perceives it as a means to free and expand his musical talent. His struggle with the drug is lifelong and damaging to both his personal life and his career, as he loves music only marginally more than he loves heroin.
Baker is experiencing a successful period in his life when he meets Jane, an actress appearing in his biographical film. The character ‘Jane’ is actually a composite of several of the women in Chet Baker’s life, but represents the mostly positive effects they had on him at different times in his career.
His drug use takes a serious toll when he is attacked and severely beaten by his dealer, breaking his jaw and facial bones and most of his teeth, leaving him unable to play the trumpet. Baker is distraught at losing his ability to make music, something he can’t imagine living without. His appearances are cancelled, the film production company cancel his movie biography and distance themselves from him. Only Jane remains with him through it all. It is the lowest point in his life.
With Jane’s encouragement, Baker enters a methadone programme, and begins the slow and painful process of regaining his ability to play the trumpet, the one thing that motivates him. At Jane’s suggestion, he expands his repertoire to include singing. Baker’s unusual vocal style – his dismissive father calls it “singing like a girl” – is reasonably successful. Baker’s efforts to remain sober, regain his musical skill, and sustain his relationship with Jane are determined but frustratingly slow. After years of struggle and of accepting mediocre jobs to support himself, he eventually convinces his agent to take him back as a client, works through his parole requirements, and after several years is able to play well enough to be given studio work and engagements at an increasingly respectable range of jazz clubs. He ultimately achieves the same level of ability on the trumpet as he had in his heyday, but his life remains troubled.Baker’s personal and artistic struggles during this period are the focus of the film, and they are portrayed with great sensitivity and enough story-telling skill to sustain interest. Ethan Hawke is magnetic and heartbreaking as Chet Baker, replicating his voice and mannerisms very well, and expressing his inner turmoil with a light hand. The look of the film helps to tell the story: flashbacks of Baker’s glory days are shown in crisp black and white; the less happy present in dim, muted colours, which become drab and shadowy during the emotionally dark scenes, lighter and more colourful in happier ones. Brief images of past events, happy or otherwise, are flashed into scenes like subliminal messages, adding an effortless glance at the characters’ thoughts and feelings to each scene.
Flashbacks and small events gradually provide some context for Baker’s self-destructiveness. A depressing visit to his parents’ home in Oklahoma offers a glimpse into his lonely childhood, and the welcome escape that music provided for him, telling a great deal in few words. (It may be worth noting that Baker’s dismissive father is played by Stephen McHattie, who played Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s short film on the musician’s mysterious death.) The soundtrack, a matter of huge importance in a film of this kind, is carefully chosen to establish the desired mood in each scene.
Although the partial fictionalisation of Baker’s life arguably makes a better film, and possibly even a clearer description of the real man, there is one substitution which will be disappointing to jazz music lovers: Chet Baker’s own music is not used during his onscreen stage performances. Another trumpeter plays an excellent approximation of Baker’s style, while Ethan Hawke himself performs the vocals. The latter are surprisingly authentic. Baker’s vocals were unusual, his singing soft and muted, his voice a little thin compared to professional singers, but he made the flaws work for him; and Hawke manages to capture that quality. Nevertheless, it is a pity to have Chet Baker’s own work replaced by a facsimile – possibly because rights to the original recordings could not be obtained, as this is an unauthorised biography.
Overall, Born to be Blue is a wonderful glimpse into the jazz culture of the 1950s and beyond, a compelling study of an artist fighting for his music, and a well crafted film.
For further viewing:
Bruce Weber’s 1989 documentary, Let’s Get Lost, outlines the life and work of Chet Baker without fictional adaptations.
The Deaths of Chet Baker is a biographical short by the director of Born to be Blue, exploring Baker’s sudden and unsolved death in Amsterdam in 1988.