Hawke Delivers Delivers Masterful Performance in Chet Baker Biopic

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Ethan Hawke portrays trumpeter Chet Baker in the biopic Born to be Blue, which was released by IFC Films.

(Photo: Courtesy IFC Films)

Robert Budreau’s semi-fictional Chet Baker biopic, Born to Be Blue, covers the trumpeter’s life from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, and all the substance abuse, beautiful women and human tragedy therein. But it’s actually after this period, when Baker (1929–’88) moved to Europe in the late 1970s, that he recorded some of his greatest performances.

Upon settling in Amsterdam, the trumpeter’s life found a regular rhythm and routine. Aided by various friends and accomplices, it became easier for Baker to score drugs, most certainly, but equally available was Europe’s large pool of skilled jazz musicians, all of whom were eager to play with the legendary jazz star. Between 1979 and his death in 1988, Baker cut more than 35 LPs on European labels, including Enja, Circle, SteepleChase, Timeless and Criss Cross Jazz.

While it’s to be expected that Hollywood or an independent filmmaker would focus on the handsome musician and his needle—Parker and Cobain didn’t escape the greedy, needy eye of narcotics, so why should Chet?—it’s crucial to remember that his best music was created when he was he no longer a pretty boy, and no longer part of the West Coast “cool-jazz” scene.

Of particular note are three SteepleChase albums Baker made with guitarist Doug Raney and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen in 1979: Someday My Prince Will Come, The Touch Of Your Lips and This Is Always. These are beautiful recordings by a mature artist performing with musicians easily his equal. Mostly performing standards, the trio is masterful and inspired throughout. Baker’s voice often goes flat, yet somehow retains its purity and simple charm.

But let’s get to the film. (What’s the point of reviewing a biopic of a remarkable musician if we don’t also discuss the artist’s music?)

Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of Baker is sober, humorous and respectful. Baker’s drug use is portrayed in gritty detail here—lighter flames, bent spoons and needles puncturing flesh—but Born to Be Blue presents a large swath of Baker’s life, not simply his drug use.

I left the theater with a sad appreciation of Baker’s heartrending life and boundless talent. Born to Be Blue stands in stark contrast to Clint Eastwood’s Bird, where the message “Charlie Parker = drug addict” was hammered endlessly with far too little respect paid to his innovative music and alto saxophone playing.

The production design of Born to Be Blue gets the period details right. When Baker cuts his seminal tracks at the Pacific Jazz Records’ studio of Richard Bock (portrayed by Callum Keith Rennie), not only is the wardrobe correct, but so are the smallest details: the Rogers drum set, trumpet microphone and tiny four-track recording console.

Elsewhere, the film’s narrative timeline obscures fact to favor cinematic flow, such as when Hawke’s Baker whispers to himself, “Hello, Dizzy. Hello, Miles. There’s a little white cat on the West Coast gonna eat you up.” The quote was actually attributed to Charlie Parker.

Born to Be Blue opens with Baker in an Italian jail cell. But this turns out to be a scene from a movie within the movie, depicting the time film producer Dino De Laurentiis (1919–2010) hired Baker to play himself in a movie (the film was never completed).

Soon we see Baker blowing trumpet, fast and cool, in a New York club, with Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) seated in the crowd. It’s here that Miles says to Baker the oft-referenced line, “Come back when you’ve lived a little.” Baker proceeds to do exactly that, filling his days by blowing trumpet, hanging out with gorgeous women and shooting heroin.

Baker’s love interest, June (portrayed by the lovely Carmen Ejogo), tries to steer him toward the straight and narrow, but it’s no use. Eventually Baker is beat senseless by a marauding drug dealer and his gang, smashing all his teeth in the melee. Baker retreats to his parents’ farm in Oklahoma to detox and practice trumpet with new dentures. While there, he works at a gas station and practices his horn in his father’s pigpen. He plays with the locals, who don’t invite him to return.

Eventually, Baker goes back to Los Angeles, where he makes jazz history. The film follows his career trajectory, very loosely, to his Birdland comeback.

Born to Be Blue features beautiful cinematography. The film’s fictional locations—which range from Italy to L.A. to New York—are portrayed in rich colors with a ’50s-looking veneer.

Trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, who serves as the Baker’s trumpet-double in the movie, performs excellently throughout, as does Hawke, who took trumpet lessons for the role. He also sings two songs for the movie, both of which appear on the film’s soundtrack.

Hawke attended the film’s screening on March 17 at New York’s 92nd Street Y, where he explained his emotional connection to Baker’s vocal style. “There is something very real about his relationship to singing,” Hawke said. “I tried to convey that. He sings the way he plays.”

Hawke—who is famous for his work in several of director Richard Linklater’s films, including Before Sunrise and Boyhood—delivers a masterful performance in Born to Be Blue; it is the film’s real charm. His boyish looks, gruff voice, able trumpet impersonation and graceful physicality make it easy to suspend your disbelief and imagine that you’re watching real events from Baker’s life.

At the 92nd Street Y, Hawke said making the movie touched on a personal note. He recalled listening Baker’s records as a child, and said that watching Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary about Baker, Let’s Get Lost, was a turning point in his artistic life.

“After seeing Let’s Get Lost, it gave me a glimpse of what jazz can be,” Hawke said. “I fell in love with his records. He was always internalizing the melody.”

—Ken Micallef



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