There’s a moment in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, where jazz drummer Andrew Neiman has to tell his fleeting girlfriend that he can’t share his dreams with her. It’s a cold, brutal moment that shifts your perspective on the character; do we even like him after that break-up?
Born to be Blue is this conflict played out in full. Starring Ethan Hawke, it’s based upon legendary trumpeter Chet Baker and his struggle with drugs in his desire to become the very best. Born to be Blue isn’t a by-the-numbers biopic, and instead focuses on the craft, pummeling effort and tragic sacrifices necessary to even put you in the same room as Miles Davies.
Passed out and collapsed on the floor of a prison, Baker (Ethan Hawke) stares down the barrel of his trumpet. A tarantula emerges, the evil from within, and it’s clear that he’s past his prime. He’s bailed out by a film director, and manages to snag a based-on-his-life role that will throw him back into the limelight (something producer Dino de Laurentiis did offer in reality). His charm gives hope to his old manager Dick (Callum Keith Rennie), and even sets him up with a gorgeous aspiring actor, Jane (Carmen Ejogo). But this optimistic moment hits the skids when Chet Baker is badly beaten by drug-dealers he owes. Suddenly, the horn that he lives to play is beyond his grasp. His teeth are replaced by pinful dentures. Re-learning the trumpet requires patience, diligence and belief. Madly in love, Jane builds him up again and manages to set him onto the right track.
Born to be Blue begins late in Bakers career. He’d already established his whispering vocals on songs such as ‘My Funny Valentine’ and his West Coast jazz style was his defining trait. Director Robert Budreau plays his cards close to his chest though; those of us uninformed of Chet’s life and future are constantly weighing up what the outcome will be. Will he ever manage to make it back again? Can he kick the drugs he depended on so much? Will his relationship with Jane (a composite of the many women in Chet Baker’s life) pan out? The fluid script toys with fact and fiction liberally, especially in a clever touch in the opening twenty minutes.
The humbling attempt at switching between fantasy and reality of Chet’s life is engaging. Budreau dreams of a monochrome palette with smoky bars, cool glasses and billowing white bed sheets between a couple deeply in love. The truth is, of course, darker than that. Rather than the Fellini-Godard fantasy, life is in full colour, cutting us up and dragging us through the dirt. Flawed parents exist outside the frame and details are buried under broken cuts and hidden demons. Chet Baker had many. Between the dope and alcohol, his probation officer hangs on his shoulder and a criticism from Miles Davies (Kedar Brown) sets the bar high for Baker if he is ever to get back to the Birdland club in New York.
It’s a bold film and Born to be Blue is in a different league to many movies charting an artist’s career. It tells the tale in a glorious, dreamlike manner and it’s often bathed in the California sun to stunning effect. Chet Baker is complicated and intriguing, and Born to be Blue doesn’t make it easy for us to get inside his head. By the finale, we’re still kept at a distance – but that’s how the James Dean of Jazz would’ve liked it.
Originally written for Flickering Myth in July 2016