“Hello Dizzy. Hello Miles. There’s a little white cat on the West Coast gonna eat you up.”
Legendary jazz trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker invokes the line at two points in writer-director Robert Budreau’s provocative “Born to Be Blue,” the film-within-a-film, improvisational anti-biopic starring Ethan Hawke as the embattled musician.
Baker is talking to himself, addressing his 1950s and ’60s contemporaries, the iconic jazz trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis — the titans of bebop, cool jazz, fusion and pretty much all things jazz in between who eventually (though reluctantly) accept the “white boy” from California with a jazz style all his own.
Baker’s tumultuous and self-destructive life has been recounted over the decades in myriad news stories and films, most notably the 1988 documentary “Let’s Get Lost.” There was his lifelong addiction to heroin, his numerous incarcerations on drug charges, his deportation from the U.K. and West Germany, his failed marriages, his near career-ending beating at the hands of a drug dealer. And then there was his death, an apparent drug-induced fall from a window of an Amsterdam hotel in 1988.
But that was the bad. The good — the very good — was the music Baker left behind. He pioneered West Coast jazz, the more soothing, more composed kin to the hardcore purists of New York. He was a singer as well, supplanting his trumpet passages with sultry vocals that were as smoky as the dimly lit clubs in which he played. His life was a mess, but his music was clear and precise and romantic. Just listen as Baker (courtesy of Hawke’s impressive vocals) completely seduces his audience with “My Funny Valentine” (one of the real-life Baker’s signature tunes) and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”
Hawke is engaging as Baker, an attractive gent with hair to rival James Dean and an eerie playfulness that garnered him legions of fans, especially young women who found him irresistible for his looks and bad-boy persona if not always his music. We’re introduced to Baker in 1960 in Italy, where bigtime Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis has decided to spring the trumpet player from jail so that he can star in a movie of his life story. That black-and-white film (which in reality never materialized) is juxtaposed with Budreau’s “reality,” shot in muted hues of greens, browns and beige. Not even the California sky is blue. It’s those two worlds that blur fact and fiction, but combine for a compelling glimpse at what made Baker tick.
We watch as Baker, already missing a front tooth, is brutally beaten by a drug dealer one night, a savage encounter that leaves the musician completely toothless, with broken bones in his jaws and face, resulting in severe damage to his embouchure, the facial muscles needed to safely manipulate the lips, tongue and teeth around a trumpet’s mouthpiece. His career is seemingly over, but Baker is undaunted. Supported by his “movie” co-star Jane (the hauntingly beautiful Carmen Ejogo in a potent role), he goes through hell (and an embarrassing array of day jobs) to re-learn his embouchure amid the constant struggle of keeping his new dentures to stay put. He comes to know real love with Jane, who devotes herself to his salvation. But she is not, and will never be, his first love.
And come back Baker does, ultimately returning to that shrine to jazz, the legendary Birdland club in New York, named in homage to jazz god Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (whom Baker performed with on several occasions early in his career). It is that do-or-die concert, at the film’s end, where the true measure of Baker’s addiction delivers its most powerful blow: Baker must choose between staying “clean” on methadone or succumbing to the one constant in his life, the heroin that he early on proclaims just “makes me happy.”
Which brings us back to one of the film’s earliest scenes. Baker plays Birdland for the first time, with Davis (Kedar Brown) and Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) in the audience. It goes well, but not well enough. He is still the outsider as far as the East Coast jazz glitterati are concerned. Davis tells Baker, “Go back home to the beach. Come back when you’ve lived a little.”
Baker did just that. But he lived a lot. And he lived hard. He played hard. He paid the price so many God-given-talent creative types have paid throughout history. The demons in his head became Baker’s worst enemy, no matter how much he believed them to be his saving grace. The drugs ultimately stole Baker’s life, but they never stole his music. He was one of the best jazz musicians of his generation. And he knew it.
IFC presents a film written and directed by Robert Budreau. Rated R (for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence). Running time: 97 minutes. Opening today at Landmark Century Centre.
Posted March 30, 2016.