Deep Focus: Born to Be Blue
With his chiseled, matinee-idol looks, his improvisatory lifestyle, and the provocative boyishness of his personal appeal, West Coast jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (1929-1988), in his Eisenhower-era heyday, was as potent a symbol of 1950s rebellion as James Dean. But ’50s rebels were a peculiar breed—nonconformity could be an awfully ambiguous program. Baker, a natural, idiosyncratic musician, couldn’t help going his own way musically, despite changing musical styles, and he couldn’t kick his addiction to heroin. Stoked by drugs, this star-turned-cult-figure scraped with the law here and in Europe, where he won fame and notoriety as a handsome yet sordid American. He married three times and had multitudinous affairs; he also fathered four children.
Bruce Weber’s beautifully evocative 1989 documentary, Let’s Get Lost, portrayed Baker as an alternately hopeful and hopeless romantic, despite his rampant promiscuity and terminal carelessness. (Baker fell out of an Amsterdam hotel window and died on Friday the 13th, in May, 1988.) “Musicians like Chet Baker and Art Pepper,” bassist Hersh Hamel told Weber, “were really products of their environment—the sun, the warmth, ah, the romanticism.” In a sense, Let’s Get Lost is about the rambling confusions of a rebel without a cause when his time and place no longer define who he is.
Robert Budreau’s semi-factual, semi-fictional Born To Be Blue, stars Ethan Hawke at his empathic and imaginative best as Baker. The movie attempts to go beyond the trumpeter’s mystique and explore the aesthetic, emotional, and pharmaceutical connections that made him an artist to the end. Budreau’s film occasionally comments on the Zeitgeist but mostly tightens the focus on Baker’s relationship to his horn, heroin, and women. Budreau’s dialogue and scenes aren’t always fresh or inventive, and at times his yarn-spinning approach can register as a cop-out. It’s easier to accept Baker as someone who hurts only himself when the four children he ignored, the women he psychologically and/or physically abused, and the addict friends who died aren’t part of the picture. But the movie has its own narrative integrity and tragicomic sense of truth. Here Baker really is a lost boy of jazz seeking his Neverland. It’s startlingly real—and shockingly funny—to see him lying on the floor, seemingly dead, with a needle in his arm, only to ask the lover who rouses him why she woke him up.
This extended riff on the mystery of a self-made jazz man’s creativity pivots on three events: Baker’s debut at Birdland in New York, at a time when Down Beat’s reader poll ranked him the best trumpeter in the nation, angering fans of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie (including Davis himself); a movie producer pulling Baker out of a Lucca, Italy jail, where he’s been incarcerated on drug charges, to star in a movie based on his life; and the drug-related street beating that wrecked his teeth, forcing him to re-learn his trumpet with dentures and test his mettle with a grueling artistic comeback. (The real-life mogul, Dino De Laurentiis, lost interest in the project, but here, the film moves into production.)
Baker’s Birdland opening and the other flashes to the antihero’s youthful prime belong to the biographical film-within-the-film, with Baker (that is, Hawke’s Baker) indeed playing himself and Carmen Ejogo (best known for portraying Coretta Scott King twice, in Boycott and Selma) embodying a composite of his wives. Ejogo also plays, in the present-day action, aspiring actor Jane Azuka, a smart, idealized blend of every woman who loved Baker or was good to him. Perhaps it’s too neat that “Azuka” means “past glory.”
Budreau playfully frog-hops through the chronology, leaping from dramatic black-and-white for the film-within-the-film, and for flashbacks that might not even be in that film, to an atmospheric color for the present-tense action that evokes (to quote the L.A. poet laureate of screenwriters, Robert Towne) “pastel sensations for pastel sensibilities.” The contrast keeps the movie light and lively and enables Budreau to toy with clashing interpretations of Baker’s life and career. Born in Oklahoma and raised there and in Southern California, Baker made his name in Los Angeles when sax legend Charlie “Bird” Parker hired him for a gig. Bird spread the world back East that this young white boy was a natural who would give Gillespie and Davis a run for their money. In one of the best moments in Born To Be Blue, Jane remarks that Bird was already an obese, aging junkie when Baker knew him, but he refuses to let her insult his hero—he says, “it was an honor to score for him.”
Baker goes to Birdland (named, of course, for Parker) as the number-one trumpeter in the nation. Davis (Kedar Brown) doesn’t like it one bit—he sees the Caucasian jazz audience propping up a “Great White Hope.” And he damns Baker’s set with faint praise, calling it “sweet, like candy” and advising him to come back to Birdland only after he has “lived a little.” Baker takes the jabs to heart, but they’re woefully unfair. The son of a failed musician father who couldn’t hold down a job as a parts inspector at Lockheed and a mother who supported the family by working at a W.T. Grant five-and-dime store, Baker never led a soft or conventional life. He even lost his left front tooth when he was 12, a setback for any horn player.
What galls Davis is that Baker has mastered his distinctive, popular style of bebop—tender, sportive, limpid, and lyrical—without any apparent effort. In this film, Baker’s own manager/producer, Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), feels that his art simply dropped into his lap. In this vision of Baker, he’s like a working-class version of Robert Redford’s super-WASP in The Way We Were: “In a way, he was like the country he lived in—everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” Except Baker doesn’t know it, until he must teach himself to reshape his trumpeter’s embouchure around his dentures.
The film-within-the-film treats Birdland as the beginning of Baker’s downward spiral, and even depicts a groupie there turning him on to smack. (The real Baker tried it years earlier.) Though Hawke’s Baker says that this movie gets everything wrong, Born To Be Blue supports that contention about Birdland. Baker is a musical autodidact who can’t own his success. He longs to be in the brotherhood of top-flight jazz men who are more technically sophisticated and versatile than he is, but he gets caught in the rifts between America’s East and West and blacks and whites.
The sad irony is that Baker is an artist from his slicked-back hair to his soles. His vibrato-free trumpet possesses a seductive, pellucid tone that never falters as he states a melody, then improvises on either side of it with a conversational intimacy. His oft-imitated, much-maligned singing has a mysterious, reedy, childish freshness that establishes instant rapport with his listeners, then draws them deep into the lyrics.
Part of Baker’s fascination is the split between his often delicate and soulful creativity and his inarticulate speech and awkward deportment. The magic of Hawke’s performance is that, without whitewashing Baker, he never stops locating the innocence within his crude behavior. His simplicity and honesty are disarming, especially as Jane batters him with questions. Why did he become an addict? He loves getting high—it makes him happy. What was the connection between him and his wife? They were great in bed.
For their first date, Baker takes her bowling, and there’s an ineffable, casual sexiness to seeing this trumpeter in nondescript clothing compete against Ejogo’s individualistic charmer in suspenders and Capri pants. He starts crooning one of Baker’s romantic hits, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” (from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls), and asks her whether she wants to come back to his place, “so we can sing.” Something opens up for Jane. She says she believes, with Chekhov, that the feelings people have when they’re in love should be their natural state of being.
The heart of the film is Baker rebuilding himself with Jane’s encouragement. Of course, every musical instrument requires hands-on training, but Baker is unable to learn or re-learn anything without fingering the valves or pressing the mouthpiece to his mouth, even though it’s bleeding. When he returns to his parents’ farm outside Yale, Oklahoma, neither Jane nor the horn leave his side except when he’s manning the gas pump at a service station down the road. Baker’s trumpet becomes a physical and visceral anchor. In the real Baker’s comeback mode he recorded a song and an album called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This episode proves that thought. Baker’s father (Stephen McHattie, in a brilliant, lacerating cameo) asks him why he chose to sing “Born To Be Blue,” a favorite song, “like a girl.” When Chet, in retaliation, brings up the old man’s aborted musical career, his dad says that at least he didn’t “shame his family” and “drag the Baker name through the mud.” You can see the petty sadism in the macho patriarch’s eyes.
Back in California, Hawke and Ejogo’s gravitational pull power Baker’s long road back to competency. He gives Jane pep talks about the acting trade. She pushes him into performing at a pizza joint, then persuades his former manager/producer Bock to give him grunt work as well as studio time to satisfy parole requirements. Ejogo’s warmth and humor mesh with Hawke’s poignant uncertainties and intensity. The movie’s twin peaks are shared triumphs. When Baker performs “My Funny Valentine” for a select group of big shots at the studio, Jane knows he’s singing it to her, especially when he croons, “You make me smile with my heart.” When Baker performs “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” at Birdland, Jane knows that he’s high especially when he sings, “So please forgive this helpless haze I’m in.”
In Hawke’s first-rate documentary, Seymour: An Introduction (14), one of the finest movies about teaching ever made, the actor-director celebrates a pianist, Seymour Bernstein, who trains students to address their craft with emotion, competence, and specificity. Bernstein’s aesthetic is pure. He wants musicians to focus their energy, technique, and instinct on expressing the spirit of the composer as revealed in the notes of the score.
Making that movie must have clarified Hawke’s thinking about the elusive character of Chet Baker, who is the temperamental opposite of Bernstein yet arrives at the same purity. This singer-trumpeter is entirely intuitive, and after years of addiction, he can’t think of performing without drugs. He thinks heroin is what makes him feel he can walk through the spaces inside and between notes. He sacrifices relationships, stability, and even his long-term health for his musicianship. His art doesn’t sustain him—it consumes him. Yet for his listeners of every era, his work is ever young.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates “The Moviegoer” at the Library of America website.