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Cool Jazz

IFC Films
 97 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed byRobert Budreau 
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo
Born to Be Blue

What makes a particular artist great is a question that can’t be answered merely by taking a look at the key moments in the artist’s life and career. That’s why, despite a terrific lead performance by Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light was somewhat of a disappointment. The audience saw what Hank Williams did but never got inside the singer. Writer/director Robert Budreau and star Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, manage in less than two hours to explain jazz legend Chet Baker about as well as possible, and they do so by playing fast and loose with the actual facts of Baker’s life.


Born to Be Blue recounts Baker’s life from the mid-1960s (the film isn’t very clear about timelines) over the next decade. The trumpeter got off to a promising start as an original practitioner of the West Coast brand of “cool jazz.” But his heroin addiction, which began in the late 1950s led to a stint in an Italian prison and a run-in with drug dealers that resulted in a beating that knocked out his front teeth. Eventually, he learned to replay the trumpet using his dentures and also incorporated a gravelly singing voice into some classic numbers like “My Funny Valentine.” He spent most of the remainder of his career in Europe, even though he remained an admitted heroin addict the entire time.


Budreau makes no pretense that his film is accurate. Instead, he reinvents history in favor of drama. Blue begins with Baker’s release from prison at the behest of producer Dino di Laurentis, who wants the musician to star in a biography of his own life. Budreau incorporates black-and-white inserts of that film-within-a-film (which never gets completed) alongside more recent scenes. Although the film is never completed, Baker, in a case of “life” imitating art, winds up with a girlfriend, the actress, Jane Azuka (Carmen Ejogo), who played his girlfriend in the movie that never was.


After his beating (ironically on the night of his first date with Jane), Baker moves to California as he starts methadone treatment and the painful process of learning new techniques for playing the trumpet. He and Jane live in a trailer at the beach as she pursues odd acting gigs and he eventually plays at local bars and restaurants where his name is a bigger draw than his actual current playing ability. He eventually wins back his former manager Dick (Callum Keith Rennie), who, after following Baker’s progress, agrees to set up a one-time audition for Baker in the record studio in which the musician had been rehearsing. The audition goes incredibly well, but Baker’s next request of Dick is far more troubling. Baker wants to play at Harlem’s legendary Birdland Jazz Club, where a disastrous initial performance (shown in the film-within-a-film) that earned the scorn of Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) started Baker’s earlier career on its downward path.


Born to Be Blue is riddled with historical inaccuracies, exaggerations, and out-and-out falsehoods. Jane is actually a composite of the various women in his life (he was actually married to one woman from the 1960s on), and the movie-within-a-movie is a fiction, although he did spend time in prison and, earlier, had parts in a couple of films. Most tellingly, the comeback performance at Birdland never took place—the club actually closed two years before Baker’s injury occurred.


Quibbling about whether or not Born to Be Blue is accurate is like similar arguments over whether or not George Washington chopped down the cherry tree. As the Founding Father’s tale illustrated his character, the events Budreau includes in Blue are carefully chosen to show how Baker developed as an artist, and, especially, his lifelong fascination with heroin. The audience gets to see Baker\s interaction with his father (Stephen McHattie), a considerably less talented musician whose jealousy towards his son led to an emotional distance. That, in turn, gave Baker an additional need for affection and an almost puppy-dog-like devotion to Jane. One gets the feeling that his love for Jane wasn’t as much traditional love as reaching out to the first person who showed him any affection.


Budreau’s screenplay is effective without the usual melodramatics that fuel many movies about drug addiction. Instead, there’s a powerful scene at Birdland in which Baker, who has run out of methadone, weighs whether to go back to using heroin (he’s been able to procure a dose). Ethan Hawke does an excellent job of portraying Baker, insecurities and all, as he realizes (or convinces himself) that he needs the heroin to be at his best. It’s not an isolated revelation; it’s the inevitable follow-up to his first performance at the club a decade earlier. There, Miles Davis accused him of being a mere jazz lightweight, an accusation that fueled his downward spiral.


Hawke’s portrayal may well win him an Oscar nomination, especially the Birdland scene, but the entire film represents his best work in a decade. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty Baker had in relearning to play his trumpet using a different method of embouchure (mouthing the trumpet). It was a remarkable accomplishment, but a painful one; watching Hawke practicing until his mouth bleeds is an uncomfortable experience, even for the audience.


Born to Be Blue benefits from trumpet solos by Kevin Turcotte, whose work is a good match for Baker’s playing. More important, Turcotte plays down to Baker’s skill level at various times as the injured musician slowly recovers his feel for the trumpet. It takes a very good talent to play below peak level for artistic purposes as Turcotte does here. Hawke also took trumpet lessons so he could match his hand and mouth movements to the melody. The result is as if Hawke himself were performing Baker’s actual music.


It’s perhaps unfair to compare Born to Be Blue to traditional biographies that strive for reasonable accuracy and faithfulness to historic events. A traditional biography of Baker would probably never give as much insight into his drug addiction for the simple reason that it would lack the climactic Birdland scene invented primarily for that very purpose. And indeed, on a couple of occasions Blue does feel artificial. But there’s nothing artificial about Ethan Hawke’s performance, and there was nothing artificial about Chet Baker. While the film by no means tries to justify heroin use (it’s clear the damage his addiction did to Baker’s career), it’s simply a part of his existence, an essential truth that makes Born to Be Blue one of the most realistic, and well-made, biographical portrayals in years.   

Read other reviews of Born to Be Blue:


Born to Be Blue (2015) on IMDb