This film slyly suggests that even Chet Baker himself couldn’t quite work out who ‘Chet Baker: Jazz Legend’ might or should be.
Born To Be Blue, like any number of stylish biopics before it, poses at least a couple of essential questions:
1. Would this film make me want to seek out the subject, and his work, from a position of almost total ignorance?
2. Is the film interesting in its own right? Would this story be compelling if it were fiction?
In an experiment of sorts, I’ve avoided the usual Wikipedia-Google swan dive in an attempt to see if knowing nothing of the real Chet Baker informs my viewing of this film. Approaching it in that way, I've found the answers to both of the above questions is a qualified ‘yes’. Born To Be Blue provides a familiarity alongside an odd, occasionally interesting detachment even during moments of overt sentiment, though the actors deliver fine, affecting performances.
The film slyly suggests that even Baker himself (played here by Ethan Hawke) couldn’t quite work out who ‘Chet Baker: Jazz Legend’ might or should be. Not quite the ‘rise-fall-rise again’ three-act biopic, it begins with the celebrity myth of Baker, even as the renowned heroin addict is detoxing in an Italian prison. His trumpet is from the outset a totem of power and of creeping disquiet, as represented by Baker’s elegant hallucination of a large spider emerging from the gleaming instrument in an otherwise featureless cell.
Mid-vision, Baker is approached by a Hollywood director and is soon on set, playing a cool, enigmatic sex-symbol version of himself for a movie designed to revive a stalled career. This movie version of Baker reappears at various points, often accompanying his loose interpretation of his own life story. With these heavily stylized black and white sections and references to luminaries from Elia Kazan to Anton Chekov, Born To Be Blue’s intellectual pretensions prop up rather than tear down the cult of the intuitive genius, which values a mystical innate gift over application and craftsmanship. Baker’s gift and curse, it’s stated by his long-suffering manager (Callum Keith Rennie), is that everything ‘came too easily’.
There's a certain irony in Kazan being name-checked here, given the popular perception of Hawke as a method actor, with no small amount of effort implied, as indeed the wider perception of jazz being an art form that needs a little work to create and appreciate. This frames Baker's gift and burden, being white. In the movie, celebrated black musicians such as Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Tony Hanshard) are supporting players. They either resent Baker’s appeal to ‘silly white girls who don’t know a lick about jazz’ or encourage his art. Like everyone else here, they revolve around Chet Baker and his suffering, but we get little sense of their wider importance in the culture that grants Baker so much privilege.
Hawke’s Baker is by turns arrogant and insecure, as Jane and others around him tolerate and sometimes enable his behavior in order to nurture or profit from his talent. Hawke plays Baker as soft-voiced and with a boyish affect that can be appealing or irritating. Around the usual self-destruction, there’s a slightly ridiculous, pursed-lip cattiness: he’s an arrested prodigy who needs protecting from himself. It’s an irresistible framing for a biography. The irresistible spectacle of Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse’s life and death, recently revisited in documentaries, suggests that both our appetite for and complicity in such stories have yet to be exhausted.
Of course, Baker is confounded by demons, from drugs to sex, as well as a jealous, chilly father who gave up his own creative dreams for bourgeois responsibility. The film's women divide neatly. They’re wives or groupies: those who understand something of the music and are therefore deemed to have greater value in the film’s universe and those who don’t. Baker’s girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo) is established as the former and she channels her energies into Baker’s recovery, from heroin addiction and from a brutal injury that threatens to end his career.
Born To Be Blue's distinction between Chet Baker’s mythologizing and the purported reality is tenuous. The film is as unreal when in colour, the romance entirely conventional. Baker is saved by his music and the redemptive love of a good woman, whose own artistic ambition is subsumed. She’s allowed a little anger about this, but as Born To Be Blue is not Jane’s story, she won’t, of course, do too much about it.
Instead, the idea of Jane is dispersed into lingering, lovely sunsets on California beaches, images for which the score -- per the few of Baker’s recordings featured -- is plaintive and yearning. It follows that their love won’t last. Yet, the score's apparent limits also help the film. One of the pleasures of Born to Be Blue is its resistance to the ‘jukebox’ format, of trotting out familiar tunes with a skeletal chronology to connect them. Born To Be Blue accepts the huge difficulty in accurately depicting a life, and doesn’t make the attempt. The style is the star, more than any of the film's versions of Chet Baker.