best thing about those Mariachi Brass albums on Dick Bock’s World Pacific label
were definitely the covers. They were transparently conceived as Tijuana Brass
rip-offs, but they did indeed feature a recovering Chet Baker on trumpet to
some extent. Essentially, they were yet another second chance for the king of
second chances. Robert Budreau fictionalizes much, but he gets the little
details spot-on in the Chet Baker bio-pic Born
to Be Blue (trailer
opens this Friday in New York.
the film opens, Baker has bottomed out in an Italian prison cell, but he will
soon fall even lower. Bizarrely, it will be the movie industry that comes to
his rescue, but Baker quickly fritters away his shot at leading man stardom. It
is not a total loss. During his flirtation with Hollywood, he meets the aspiring
actress who will become his lover and caretaker. Shortly thereafter, he gets
his teeth bashed in as punishment for his mounting drug debts.
and his star Ethan Hawke convey just how challenging it is for a horn player to
develop a radically new embouchure. There will be a lot of scuffling while
Baker’s plugs away at his agonizing comeback, but there also seems to be real
love shared by the somewhat mismatched couple. Yet, even though Baker cleans up
in a methadone program, his demons are always lurking nearby.
his credit, Hawke makes a dynamite doppelganger for Chet Baker. Frankly, his
speaking voice sounds a bit like an affected impersonation, but he totals
channels Baker’s vocals when performing standards like “My Funny Valentine” (of
course) and a wonderfully eerie “Blue Room.” Yet, in the quiet moments, he
perfectly captures Baker’s twitchy aloofness and mannerisms, subtly expressing the
resentments and insecurities quietly raging within.
Ejogo hits all the necessary marks as “Jane the actress,” but her arc of
infatuation and disillusionment is pretty standard stuff. However, Callum Keith
Rennie is terrific as the eternally optimistic but increasingly exasperated
Bock. Frankly, Bock is an underappreciated figure in jazz history, who produced
some classic sessions and a fair number of number of eccentric oddities, like
the Mariachi Brass (but that is why some of us obsessively collect the World
Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie appear as Baker’s rivals (collegially in Dizzy’s
case, but not so much with respects to Davis). It is nice that Budreau could
shoehorn in a few extra jazz legends, but it is strange Gerry Mulligan, the
co-leader of Baker’s breakthrough quartet, never makes an appearance.
fact, it is rather unfortunate Baker remains the face of West Coast Jazz,
rather than Mulligan (even though the baritone saxophonist was still remarkably
successful by jazz standards). Mulligan eventually settled down and evolved
through several distinctly fertile periods of artistic development. For several
years, he led the acclaimed Concert Jazz Band and even penned proggy fusion
compositions. Yet, it is Baker who is most closely identified with West Coast
Cool, despite his wildly problematic behavior. That dramatic fall from grace
was just too compelling, like a train derailment.
not really depicting Baker’s reported mental and occasionally physical abuse,
Hawke gets at his tragically self-defeating essence. His Baker will break your
heart over and over if you let him. The film also sounds great, thanks to the
swinging and era-appropriate arrangements and original compositions of Canadian
jazz musician David Braid. Kevin Turcotte convincingly doubles all three
trumpeters, which is quite a statement, while Canadian Jazz statesman Terry
Clarke adds real deal authenticity on the drums.
To quote another Mariachi Brass album, “hats off”
to Budreau for not sugar-coating the broad strokes of Baker’s life. The ending
is absolutely perfect, because it is so frustratingly accurate. It is a whip-smart
film that might take liberties with biography, but gets the jazz right.
Recommended with enthusiasm, Born to Be
Blue opens this Friday (3/25) in New York, at the IFC Center, a week ahead
of Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead.
Labels: Canadian Cinema, Chet Baker, Ethan Hawke