Chet Baker was sometimes called “the James Dean of Jazz.” His film star good looks, seductive vocal style, smooth trumpet playing and bad boy persona made him a hit, especially with female fans. In the early ’50s Miles Davis was seen as the hot up and coming jazz trumpeter, especially by critics and hard core fans. But, Baker was often pulling bigger, more vibrant audiences, especially when he and Davis were billed on the same nights for two weeks at the legendary Birdland venue. Baker also managed to beat Davis to the DownBeat magazine’s poll for best jazz trumpeter for two years running.
Born To Be Blue opens during this period. Chet Baker is playing the early set at Birdland in 1955 with Miles Davis in the audience. Later, when they meet, Miles criticises Chet’s playing as simplistic, telling him to come back when he’s “lived a little.” What the film implies, but does not directly show us, was that for the next few years Baker’s career would spiral downwards. Jazz is a genre that demands constant invention in order to achieve critical acclaim and Baker’s style didn’t evolve beyond his melody-oriented 50s approach. Conflict, controversy and a raging drug habit ending the brilliant opening chapter of Baker’s career.
After this opening scene, Born To Be Blue takes us to an Italian prison cell in 1965, where Baker is sprawled on a concrete floor, hallucinating that tarantulas are coming out of his trumpet. Baker’s salvation is a movie director, who arranges for him to fly to Hollywood, to star in a film about his own life. So, Chet Baker is now cast in a semi-fictionalised account of his own life, playing himself, with actors playing composite roles of the main figures in his life.
Of course, none of this sequence from the 60s actually happened, at least not in the way portrayed in Born To Be Blue. To be fair, the film is honest about this, pitching itself as a “re-imagining” of Baker’s career. It’s a fascinating move for writer and director Robert Budreau. Partly, because despite previous attempts, this is the first biopic of the jazz trumpeter’s life. But mostly, because the vast majority of the stories Baker told about himself, including his often-quoted first audition with Charlie Parker, where he alleged the jazz great picked him out from a room of young hopefuls, were simply not true.
Born To Blue focusses on a brief period in the mid 60s, when Baker tried to resurrect his career after being brutally beaten, suffering an injury that threatened his ability to play. The film manages to effortlessly convey the jazz world of that time, from the pressure cooker environment of big name jazz in New York, to the moneyed comfort of Californian studios, the breezy and youthful hipster cafe scene, while also acknowledging the dark side of drug addiction amongst musicians. There is even a brief but well drawn introduction to Baker’s roots in rural Oklahoma.
But, this film isn’t a thorough biography, origin story or jazz documentary. The focus is squarely on the myth of Chet Baker, or to put it another way, on how Baker created the myth of Baker to rebuild his stalled career. Ethan Hawke is in fine form playing the fragile and contradictory character of Baker, the needy seducer, the artist whose style is as attractive as it is limiting. He fully inhabits Baker’s contradictions, the kindness and destructiveness, the charming cool and the alarming helplessness. And, Carmen Ejogo delivers an impressive performance as Baker’s love interest Jane.
Chet Baker’s actual life story was wilder, more unhinged and out of control than anything we see in Born To Be Blue. And, yet, the film feels true to Baker’s legacy, to the way he is remembered by fans, critics, casual and serious listeners of jazz music. Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo are sensational in their respective roles and the whole production works well as an introduction to changing face of jazz in the 60s. Born To Be Blue is an unusual biopic, one that is open about the way it blends and plays with the facts to tell its story. It shouldn’t be taken as the final word on the Chet Baker story. But, as something to be savoured, late at night, perhaps after a few drinks, when you want to put your troubles behind you by immersing yourself in another world, it’s every bit as comfortable, light and enjoyable as Baker’s own, iconic style of jazz.