J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Born to Be Blue: Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

The 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 here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As 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.

Budreau 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.

To 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.

Carmen 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 Pacific label).

Both 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.

In 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.

While 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.

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