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.
This new film essentially invents a midpoint between Baker’s heartthrob heyday and the broken man in Weber’s dreamlike documentary. Budreau, who crafted a Baker-focused short before this feature, opens in 1954, in the midst of Baker’s whirlwind ascent. SPOILER Within minutes, in overly stylized black-and-white, he’s been hounded by fans, performed a career-making gig at Birdland, had his psyche deeply wounded by Miles (played stern and smart by Kedar Brown) and tasted his demise when an unsavory female friend introduces him to heroin. His loyal, well-meaning companion Elaine walks in on the unfolding sin, naturally, and all hell breaks loose. The jazz-flick triteness snowballs. And then: “Cut!” Baker rises from his theatric stupor, complaining about authenticity. Budreau has ignited his tale with a brilliant film-within-a-film gambit, only the film in question-a mid-’60s biopic wherein Baker plays himself-was only proposed in reality, never completed. What a start, and what a statement of self-awareness.
From there the core story begins, in color, as poetic flashbacks to the unfinished biopic serve to explain the past throughout. On the set, Baker pursues his costar, Jane, with positive results; though he’s a junkie who is already missing a tooth, Baker’s nonchalant charm is palpable, and Hawke communicates that allure convincingly, without trying too hard. His Baker is detached but sympathetic, wily and vulgar but gentle, with a slight, reticent voice that can recall the young Mickey Rourke. (Hawke also sings, in a way that approaches Baker’s essence while sidestepping impersonation; Canada’s Kevin Turcotte backs Hawke’s onscreen trumpet playing.) Baker and Jane enjoy a date at a bowling alley, where the trumpeter offers a plainspoken m.o. that should send the woman running but only seems to pique her interest: He’s a junkie simply because he loves getting high, and it makes him happy.
Before they can get to the parking lot, thugs break Baker’s teeth, presumably over a drug debt, leaving him to rebuild his embouchure-at first in painful, gory detail-and attempt to kick heroin. Methadone and dentures help, but not as much as Jane (played with intelligent compassion by Carmen Ejogo, who also, logic dictates, appears as Elaine in the faux biopic). Movingly sad and sweet and codependent, she and Baker seek rest in the flat dreariness of his Oklahoma home, visiting his hopeful mother and resentful father. There are days and nights spent along the serenely captured L.A. coastline, living out of Jane’s van, and a weekly jam session that allows Baker to regain his chops but doesn’t impress his parole officer. Eventually, with the guidance of his long-suffering savior and producer Dick (Callum Keith Rennie)-Pacific Jazz founder Richard Bock, one assumes-studio work surfaces and a proper comeback looms. That high-stakes New York gig returns Baker to a source of his emotional scarring, and to the moral quandary that defines his personal and artistic purpose.
An expertly wrought film from all angles, Born to Be Blue is in several important ways subversive. It harbors a considered, almost diplomatic attitude toward narcotics, and its ability to trace a believable narrative while flouting historical accuracy is rare. (Even veteran jazz heads will want to do some Googling after viewing.) Many of these characters and situations are less composites than inventions that illustrate Baker’s ethos and myth, more effectively than chronology ever could. In that regard, Born to Be Blue is right and true.