Born to be Blue
If you have ever been in love with a musician, this movie will break your heart. In what must be a career-best, Ethan Hawke gives an extraordinary performance as the legendary trumpeter Chet Baker, the ‘James Dean of jazz’.
The genre-breaker Baker was acknowledged at the time as an inventor of Western jazz swing, a white guy on the West Coast, ploughing his own furrow on the esoteric field of jazz. Chet was a member of the Californian ‘cool school.’
Originally chosen by Charlie Parker for his band, Baker later dared to take on the black masters of the art like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, whom he revered and then played at their own game. His music style was lighter, however, spurned by some. After he has done a gig at Birdland, they compliment him by saying, it was sweet – then sardonically, ‘like sugar,’ no bigger insult for hard-core jazzsters.
But Baker fell prey to more than musical criticism, spiralling into the grip of heroin and becoming a washed-up junkie in the 1960s. Canadian filmmaker Robert Budreau riffs on a couple of real life incidents in Baker’s life, when he was rescued from an Italian jail to star in a movie about his life and also when his teeth are smashed by a drug dealer looking for money and is unable to play trumpet. Then Budreau weaves a fictional musical web, shot in brilliant locations. We crisscross the States from the big skies of Oklahoma to tiny jazz gigs, then life in a VW camper van by the beach in California in this unconventional biopic, charting Chet’s tumultuous life and career.
At times, it is literally bloody, as Baker attempts to get his lips back into shape and he also abuses all those close to him, using up every favour in both his personal and private life. But the man whose croak brought My Funny Valentine to life is alluring, thanks to Hawke’s immersive performance. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take us up to the 1980s, when Elvis Costello engaged Baker for his track Shipbuilding or the gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 1986, with Costello and our own Van Morrison.
With a similar approach to Don Cheadle’s recent Miles Ahead, but a million times more mesmerising, Budreau’s Born to be Blue does not stick to facts, but reimagines Baker’s life, as he attempts to stage his comeback. It’s spurred in part by a passionate romance with a sultry new flame (Carmen Ejogo), but music is always the mistress. As I said, heartbreaking.
by Liz Kennedy
BORN TO BE BLUE (certificate 15) will screen at QFT until August 11.