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The New Chet Baker Biopic: Fact, Fiction & Poetic Truth

Spirit and story top biography in Robert Budreau’s inventive "Born to Be Blue"

Chet Baker

Within musical biopics, the junkie-jazzman saga is one of filmmaking’s hoariest clichés, and for knowledgeable jazz fans it sets a trap for any film depicting the art form’s history. When Clint Eastwood defined Charlie Parker by his heroin addiction in 1988’s Bird, at the expense of the saxophonist’s genius and influence, jazz critics and observers pushed back. More recently and successfully, Jeff Preiss’ arthouse gem Low Down positioned drug addiction as an omnipresent obstacle in a love story between journeyman pianist Joe Albany and his daughter.

Of course Born to Be Blue, writer-director Robert Budreau’s poetically honest but factually negligent movie about trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke, should burrow into the horrors of opiate dependency. After all, no other jazz musician better embodied the guilty-pleasure romance of the hipster-addict archetype-not even Parker. Soft-voiced and hard-living, Baker’s jones destroyed his abilities and his square-jawed, heartland good looks. But because of his demons and not in spite of them, his legend grew both during his lifetime and following his mysterious death at age 58, in 1988. His rumpled face became more expressive; the fickle limitations in his playing and singing only ramped up the melancholic ballad lyricism that was his trademark. If the legend weren’t already indelible, photographer Bruce Weber premiered his unforgettable Let’s Get Lost only months after Baker’s death.

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