Jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker spent a large majority of his career trying to measure up to fellow visionary Miles Davis. As fate would have it, the two artists are unknowingly locked in posthumous competition again with dueling biopics hitting limited release this weekend. Don Cheadle makes his directorial debut as Davis in “Miles Ahead” and Ethan Hawke portrays Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue.” For once (especially if a 67% versus 85% measurement on Rotten Tomatoes has anything to say), Baker may indeed notch a victory of superiority.
Any savvy film fan should know that first-rate musical biography films are less about the music and more about the artist. The music becomes extroverted accompaniment to the introverted human elements behind the persona. Presenting a career-best performance from Ethan Hawke, “Born to Be Blue” earns its place as one of the best jazz movies to grace the screen. The film is an impressive creative step forward for Canadian director Robert Budreau in just his second feature-length effort.
Skipping cradle-to-grave banality, “Born to Be Blue” examines a small and redemptive portion of Chet Baker’s life beginning in 1966. His career has already completed its first arc since his 1950s hey-day as the California answer to New Yorker Miles Davis on the horn with a dash of Frank Sinatra on the microphone. With the burgeoning rock movement of the late 60s, classic jazz is beginning a slow death. We meet a drugged-out Baker wallowing in a Lucca, Italy prison cell during his self-financed work to play himself in a movie about his life.
Baker courts and falls for the struggling actress playing his love interest, Jane Azuka, played by “Selma” star Carmen Ejogo. As the older Baker explains his life to Jane, flashbacks are shown to his jealous rivalry with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis during a 1954 shared billing at Birdland where he is introduced to heroin. Drugs and debts have chased Baker ever since. Those dues catch up to him when strong-armed collectors beat him up after a date with Jane. The fight knocks out Baker’s front teeth, ruining his embouchure and ability to play the trumpet.
The physical and emotional loss of his musical faculty is comforted by Jane’s presence in his life. He seeks to heal, kick his addictions, and make a comeback as a trumpeter again. This timid-yet-ardent transmigration sends Baker home to rural Oklahoma for a brief time to his disapproving parents (Stephen McHattie and Janet Laine-Green), has the couple living out of van on the beach, and making ends meet with odd jobs and failed gigs. When his horn-playing (and confidence) slowly returns, Baker reconnects with his former manager (TV character actor Callum Keith Rennie) and begins even more hard work to reclaim his prestige.
The essential nucleus of this film is Ethan Hawke in, ironically, a second chance of sorts to play Chet Baker after failed Richard Linklater attempt 20 years ago. You could argue he has never been better in a complete lead performance. He eliminates his usual Linklater-borne bouncy loquaciousness and spins a withdrawn cocoon of uncomfortable and trapped subtlety to play this tortured husk of a man with greatness still in him. His dedication is visible in every scene and matched, blow-by-fragile-blow, by Carmen Ejogo. Playing a composite of several women that intersected his life during this time period, Ejogo comports herself wonderfully as the lone beacon of brightness in Baker’s life.
“Born to Be Blue” is a redemption story of musical flair that can only be achieved with an eye and an ear for the art. Budreau’s films oozes style from every pore. Cinematographer Steve Cosens employs a balance of slow long zooms and handheld camerawork to always keep the picture moving and intimate. The film’s music, developed by David Braid and featuring Kevin Turcotte with the audio on trumpet, strikes the right harmonies to match this low place in Baker’s life with the flutter of possible renewal. With light brimming through the darkness, this film impresses on multiple levels.
Lesson #1: Everyone loves a comeback story— Unlike most biographies that skip over the low points with shorthand, “Born to Be Blue” makes a low point in Chet Baker’s career its central focus. Why? It’s because of the lesson title. Seeing a character overcome adversity and return to form from being lost is often a better story than their initial success.
Lesson #2: Kids, don’t do drugs— What is it with famous musicians and drug addiction? Chet does his best for a time to get clean and lay off the vices, but, as is often the case, addiction wins.
Lesson #3: Recovering a lost ability or talent— Performing music came so easy to Chet as younger man before his mouth injuries. To be what he was before, it now takes work, pain management, and a change of attitude. Working one’s way back from a lowest point is not particularly prosperous or guaranteed. It is a difficult path wrought with setbacks.