Sketches of pain: Born to Be Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2016)

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My pebble on the beach is gettin’ washed away                                                       I’ve given everything that was mine to give                                                              And now I’ll turn around and find                                                                               That there’s no time to live

-from “No Time to Live” by Traffic (Winwood/Capaldi)

The life of horn player/vocalist Chet Baker is a tragedian’s dream; a classic tale of a talented artist who peaked early, then promptly set about self-destructing. Sort of the Montgomery Clift of jazz, he was graced by the gods with an otherworldly physical beauty and a gift for expressing his art. By age 24 he had already gigged with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. He began chasing the dragon in the 1950s, leading to jail time and a career slide. There are conflicting versions of the circumstances that led to a brutal beating in 1968, but the resultant injuries to his mouth impaired his playing abilities. While he never kicked the substance abuse, he eventually got his mojo back, and enjoyed a resurgence of his career in his final decade (he was only 58 when he died).

Baker has a mystique that has inspired filmmakers over the years. Jess Franco’s 1969 cult film Venus in Furs  (my review) was seeded by a  conversation the director once had with Baker (the protagonist is a haunted jazz trumpeter, who falls in love with a woman who may or may not exist). Bruce Weber’s beautifully photographed 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is a heartbreaking portrait of Baker toward the end of his life. Which brings us to writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue (limited release and pay-per-view).

Budreau’s film is a highly stylized “re-imagining” of the jazzman’s slow, painful professional comeback that followed in the wake of the beating that virtually destroyed his embouchure. In a super-meta opening scene, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is on a movie set, working out a scene for a biopic about himself, with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). An off camera romance ensues, with Jane pulling triple duty as lover, muse and drug counselor; trying to keep him off the junk as he struggles against the odds to regain his playing chops with a fractured jaw. Along the way, the couple takes a road trip to Chet’s boyhood home in Oklahoma, where he introduces Jane to his parents (Janet Laine-Green and Stephen McHattie) and feebly attempts to patch things up with his estranged father.

Jane isn’t the only person in Chet’s orbit who find themselves fulfilling a caretaker’s role; his long-time manager (Callum Keith Rennie), musical mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), and his parole officer (Tony Nappo), continue to prop him up, against their better judgement (you know what they say: “Never trust a junkie.”). How much of this aspect of Baker’s life is being “re-imagined” here is up for debate; but it’s interesting to observe that in Weber’s 1988 documentary, even Baker himself admits (in so many words) that he knew he was a natural-born charmer, and he was never afraid to exploit it.

While the “junkie/alcoholic (musician, artist, writer, or poet) with God-given talent and a maddening gift for self-destruction” narrative is a cliché, Budreau’s film is bolstered by a very strong performance from Hawke; it’s an immersive portrayal that ranks among his best. Supporting performances are excellent as well. Overall, the film is moody, highly atmospheric, and evocative of the time period, with striking cinematography (by Steve Cosens). The dearth of original Baker music is glaring (copyright issues?), but Kevin Turcotte’s faux-Chet trumpet provides a reasonable facsimile thereof. Hawke does his own singing; very convincingly capturing Chet Baker’s essence (if not his exact tonality).

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