Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue is about the love between a man and his trumpet, and all the pain that such a love may bring. The trumpet itself, which belongs to notorious jazzman Chet Baker, looks like a shining brass demon. At various times we see a tarantula crawling out of it, blood pouring out of it, and of course, an awful amount of spit dripping from it. There are so many close-ups of the horn’s opening that it begins to feel like the ominous shower head in Psycho. We see dozens of scenes of Baker, played with ratty charm by Ethan Hawke, alone with his trumpet: in a bathtub, laying on the floor, sitting on top of a van, on a beach, on a porch, cradling it, loving it, communing with it. Baker was a junkie, but even shooting heroin was just a way to “get inside the notes.” A girlfriend tells him at one point to make love to her more slowly, “like you’re playing me,” but she doesn’t realize there can be only one instrument in his life. Later, when Baker asks the woman to marry him, he offers her his trumpet’s valve ring to wear around her neck, as if proposing a union between man, woman, and horn. Unfortunately, Budreau keeps Baker clueless as to why such devotion brings such sorrow – it’s because a trumpet doesn’t love you back.
Budreau, who shoots the movie as if he’s hoping to create a line of Chet Baker post cards, is less interested in the psychology of his characters than in how to make them look iconic. If he appreciates jazz, it’s the jazz of 1950s magazine layouts and hoary myth, the jazz created by photographers, not musicians. We know we’re in trouble during an early scene set in 1954, when Baker is introduced as “the James Dean of jazz.” The glitch is that Dean’s first film wouldn’t be out for another year, and such an introduction would be meaningless. Things get worse when Budreau tells some of the Chet Baker story in flashback, via a film within the film, where Baker is playing himself in his own bio pic. Then we watch Baker strike up a relationship with an actress from the movie within the movie. Are you getting this? The kids might call it meta, but it’s more like a moron saw a couple of old Godard movies and bought a camera for Christmas.
The biographical aspect of the movie takes a beating. It’s another project where the moviemaker plays with the facts, and riffs on the legend. A “reimagining,” if you will. Early on, Baker and his new sweetheart are out for a stroll – he’s taken her bowling, and tried to entice her with some dirty talk – when he’s assaulted by some thugs. They beat the hell out of him, cracking him in the mouth with the butt end of a pistol. They are supposedly old drug contacts – he’s tried to clean up his act, but as we all know, it’s hard to escape the past, especially when you owe a lot of money to heroin dealers – though in reality (remember reality?) Baker often claimed that he battled his assailants for several minutes, until they finally got the best of him. Here, they just jump him and knock his teeth out. Blurring things even more, his new girlfriend, played by the lovely Carmen Ejogo, witnesses the whole bloody event. In real life, there were no witnesses. But Budreau wants someone in Baker’s life to help him get over this ugly incident, and serve as an inspiration as he mounts his long, slow comeback.
Playing Baker would appeal to any actor. He’s the sort of character who can look cool as hell, but is, deep down, a very messy human. Hawke plays Baker as a sort of wounded kid, unsure of himself, comfortable only with his trumpet. At times he even starts to look like Baker, especially from a distance (at other times, strangely enough, he resembles Mickey Rourke). He affects Baker’s high voice and vulnerability, and is especially brilliant in the scenes that deal with Baker’s traumatized mouth. As he struggles to play through his shattered gums and lips, we half expect his head to explode. Even a kissing scene with Ejogo looks painful, as if his lips can’t take it. The real Baker, from what I know, was a bit of a snake, a manipulator who used people in the way that junkies do. We don’t really get this side of him in Born to Be Blue. This Baker is a bumbler, a guy who lives to get high and play music. Budreau may have stripped Baker of his nastier side, but the Baker we get is, if nothing else, worthy of our sympathy. What’s interesting is that Baker’s comeback, which shows him gigging for pennies in a pizza joint before returning to the stage at Birdland, is supposed to be inspirational in a Rocky III sort of way. The result, though, is more sad than rousing. When Baker sings ‘I’ve Never Been In Love Before,’ in the film’s climax, it’s heartrending, not because he’s made it back, but because he’s back to what he’d been before: a jazz junkie who lives in a daydream with his horn.
Hawke has a nice chemistry with Ejogo, and considering that most of her scenes involve wiping blood off the guy, she’s got star quality to burn. As far as fictionalized lovers go, Ejogo is a good choice. All she’d have to do is flutter her big brown eyes or show some leg, and most men would master the trumpet, even if their dentures were falling out. Hawke and Ejogo can almost make you forget that so much of the movie feels arbitrary, like Baker’s visit to the Oklahoma farm where he grew up. The scenes between Baker and his dad (Stephen McHattie) feel stiff and stagey, like they were inserted just to show that Baker didn’t have a warm childhood. Tony Nappo plays Baker’s probation officer, to no great effect. In a scene where Baker tells him off, Nappo says, “I thought that went rather well,” which sounds like a line from Friends, not a 1960s encounter between cop and junkie. A scene where Baker meets his girlfriend’s parents feels forced, added, I imagine, so Baker could get angry and tell someone to “fuck off.”
The music industry people are like cardboard cutouts, placed strategically throughout the movie so Baker has even more obstacles to run up against. Kedar Brown plays Miles Davis as Gollum in a Nehru jacket, scowling in the shadows of Birdland, while Kevin Hanchard plays Dizzie Gillespie as the good cop to Davis’ bad cop. After a while, they both seem like those celebrity lookalikes who appear at shopping malls. Davis seems irritated by Baker, mocking him as “the great white hope,” mocking his little girl fans, and telling him to go back to the beach and come back when he’s done some living. The suggestion here is that Davis’ scorn is what sent Baker into his downward cycle, which is a dinky idea to hang a movie on. At the time, Baker was actually more popular than Davis and should’ve told him to take his advice and shove it. But Budreau wants to depict Baker as a mousy character, coming alive only through his music.
The music itself has been an issue with some viewers, since Baker’s recordings aren’t used in the film. The soundtrack is by the David Braid Quartet, with Hawke’s vocal on a few numbers. The music in the film approximates the Baker sound, though it feels muted and lacks life; you can’t imagine that anyone ever flipped for it. Hawke’s singing is a surprise, though. He doesn’t sound much like Baker, but there’s an emotional ache in his voice that comes through.
In all, there’s more to like than dislike about Born To Be Blue. Though some of the film was shot in Los Angeles, Budreau and cinematographer Steve Cosens did most of their work in Ontario, Canada and in a movie studio in Hamsphire, England, somehow recreating California and New York of the 1960s. Set decorator David LeBrun and art director Joel Richardson produce some gems, especially the backroom at Birdland. Even if the movie doesn’t always sound right, it sure as hell looks right.
I recently wrote about Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s excellent documentary about Baker from 1988. That’s probably where Hawke and Budreau got a lot of their ideas, and it made me hyper aware of Hawke’s every move. In some ways, he’s too big boned and healthy to be playing such a wasted character. When he stands onstage, his legs are slightly parted, his shoulders hunched, like he’s in a combat stance, too rigid for West Coast jazz. So, no, Hawke doesn’t turn in a perfect imitation of Baker. But he’s perfectly convincing as a man in pain.