By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Chicago Crusader
I was cheering for jazz man and singer Chet Baker, as portrayed by Ethan Hawke in the new film “Born to be Blue.” Hawke lights up the screen as jazz legend Baker, whose tumultuous life is thrillingly re-imagined with wit, verve and style to burn. In the 1950s, Baker was one of the most famous trumpeters in the world, renowned as both a pioneer of the West Coast jazz scene and an icon of cool. By the 1960s, he was all but washed up, his career and personal life in shambles due to years of heroin addiction.
In his innovative anti-biopic, director Robert Budreau zeroes in on Baker’s life at a key moment in the 1960s, just as the musician attempts to stage a hard-fought comeback, spurred in part by a passionate romance with a new flame named Jane played by Carmen Ejogo, who also played in “Selma” and “Sparkle” and is the wife of actor Jeffrey Wright. Creatively blending fact with fiction and driven by Hawke’s virtuoso performance, “Born to Be Blue” unfolds with all the stylistic brio and improvisatory genius of great jazz.
In his heyday, Baker was going up against Miles Davis (who is the subject of an upcoming film starring Don Cheadle) and Dizzy Gillespie on the East Coast, as he blew his notes on the West Coast. “Born to be Blue” is a perfect title for a musician who just couldn’t seem to keep it together while sober. As his trumpet entertained the crowd with sad, measured notes, Baker pined for a heroin fix even after being arrested on drug charges in Italy in the early 1960s, placed on probation and beaten to a near pulp with all his teeth knocked out.
Baker goes back and forth, as his life is often displayed in flashbacks to before he is arrested and his career is blooming. He lets his manager know, however, that he never wanted a career; he just wanted to play. He is now trying to play in a film about himself (a movie that never came to fruition in Baker’s real life) but his drug habit gets in the way.
Hawke who played the young cop in “Training Day,” as well as other films, is playing against type in this film, but reportedly he is a big jazz fan. His father thinks very little of him, but he could always count on his mother’s support. At one point, while still in recovery and on Methadone, he returns to the family farm to try to focus and get back to where he was professionally.
Jane, who is a fledging actress, has finally vowed to leave him if he ever starts up with heroin again. However, Baker, who is now addicted to Methadone, figures there is no difference in the two—he’s still an addict.
Toward the end of the film, while he’s still trying to make a comeback, Baker is challenged by his manager, a challenge which is co-signed by Davis and Gillespie, to fill out the iconic Birdland in New York’s Manhattan area, if he wants to prove that he still has the chops to play the trumpet. When the big day comes, it doesn’t go smoothly, and he needs the crutch that Jane provides, but she’s committed to her career.
The ending is sad and blue, much like the title. After having had an illustrious career in the United States, Baker died in 1988 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. According to the movie, he was able to continue his drug habit and play his trumpet, with a bit of a rebirth of his career in the 70s and 80s overseas.
Director Budreau is also a long-time jazz fan who felt that Baker’s personal story fit the regular bill of “flawed male protagonists seeking love and redemption.” He was, however, still fascinated with the story. “I was first drawn to Chet Baker’s story when I found out two things; one, an inspirational, sympathetic element: that he lost all his teeth and had to mount a comeback; and two, a potentially surreal element: that he was offered to star in a movie about himself that never happened.”
Hawke is great in “Born to be Blue,” and as Baker tells his parole officer that parole officers are what killed Billie Holiday—as she had been known to fight drug addiction, as well—the theme seems to run true for many musicians. It does beg the question: Does a life in music and all its trappings compel the artist to abuse drugs, or does the abuse of drugs makes one’s creativity sharper?
Said producer Jake Seal: “It’s a wonderful comeback story about a legendary character who achieved dizzying heights of creativity and success; against all the odds.”
“Born to be Blue” starts in Chicago on April 1 at Landmark Theatres Century Centre on North Clark Street.