Jazz has a habit of promoting legends, particularly about its best musicians. So it's no surprise that the new film, Born To Be Blue, takes the narrative of part of Chet Baker's life and turns it into a story, one that's an even better story than reality.

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in the film 'Born To Be Blue'. The film has its Ottawa debut from April 1 to 5 at the ByTowne Cinema.
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in the film 'Born To Be Blue'. The film has its Ottawa debut from April 1 to 5 at the ByTowne Cinema.

Baker's biography is inherently glamorous (if not an example that you'd want your children to follow). There's his prodigious natural affinity with the trumpet, which supposedly made Charlie Parker issue the warning to NYC jazz trumpeters like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis that Baker was a “little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up”. There's Baker's alternately romantic and tragic long-term addiction to heroin which slowly turned him into a wraith of his original crew-cut, handsome self. There's his mysterious death in 1988, falling from a window of a cheap Amsterdam hotel.

There's the early photos of Baker by famed jazz photographer William Claxton, whose camera turned Baker into movie-star handsome – helped by Baker's instinctive style and ability to play to that camera.

And ultimately there's the beautiful, mellow, melancholy music Baker made with his trumpet and his voice, particularly with his signature tune, “My Funny Valentine”. He and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan revived the little-known Rogers and Hart ballad in 1952 for their first recording for Fantasy Records, and his “cool” yet deeply emotional rendition of that song defined his style and made him hugely popular.

What Born To Be Blue does really well, more than anything else, is capture that music and that style. The music, both the incidental jazz interludes and the actual songs, is simply gorgeous. That's due to Toronto composer and pianist David Braid, who wrote and arranged the jazz score – as well as researching it, transcribing music from recordings, orchestrating, and producing and recording it.

The trumpet parts are performed by Kevin Turcotte, whose elegant and expressive playing evokes the emotional intensity in Baker's style while not directly copying it. He's joined by other veteran Toronto jazz musicians – Mike Murley on baritone sax, Steve Wallace on bass, Dave Neill on sax, Alex Dean on clarinet, and Terry Clarke on drums – as well as Toronto pianist Todor Kobakov.

The result is a score which respects Baker's music, and jazz – and shows you why that music so immediately and viscerally connected with his audiences. The classics are beautifully rendered, and it has an energy that never flags.

The result is a score which respects Baker's music, and jazz – and shows you why that music so immediately and viscerally connected with his audiences. The classics are beautifully rendered, and it has an energy that never flags.

Actor Ethan Hawke portrays Baker as a talented musician with a deep love of the trumpet, and equally deep pit of insecurity about his abilities. That insecurity was hardly helped by the hostility of many New York trumpet and other jazz players who were turned off by the hype which surrounded this kid from California who hadn't paid his dues, and wasn't trying to push the music to its limits as they were. It's a finely-tuned performance that's believable. Hawke inhabits the music and the stage, and kept my attention and empathy throughout the movie.

I was also impressed with Canadian actor Kevin Hanchard, who plays an initially skeptical but eventually helpful Dizzy Gillespie, who gives Baker a rare honest assessment of his progress returning to music. Kedar Brown is a brooding, ominous presence as Miles Davis, and delivers his biting insults well.

Born To Be Blue is billed as a “re-imagining of jazz legend Chet Baker's musical comeback in the late '60s”, and that term “re-imagining” is important. The plot is centred around the romance between Baker and black actress Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) – but that romance never happened.

At that time, Baker was married to his third (and final) wife Carol, a white woman from the UK whom he met in 1960, and they had two children with a third on the way. Similarly the film gives a rather more rosy view of the circumstances of Baker's parents than their real-life difficulties in the late 60s.

On the other hand, the main characters – with the exception of Jane – are true to life, and many of the events in Born To Be Blue are also included in biographies of Baker.

The action cuts between 1954, when the Chet Baker Quartet made its New York City debut at Birdland, and the mid to late 1960s. The 1954 sections are shot in B&W, emphasizing the historical jazz feel of those sections and looking much like one of Claxton's or Francis Wolff's iconic photographs; the 1960s sections are in colour, making them more immediate.

At Birdland, Baker's quartet was scheduled for a month in a pair of double bills, first against Dizzy Gillespie, then against Miles Davis. The movie shows the instant animosity between Baker and Davis, Davis telling him to “go back home to the beach, man. This ain't the place for you. Come back when you've lived a little."

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker on his way back in the film 'Born To Be Blue'
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker on his way back in the film 'Born To Be Blue'

Then the events in the movie become a lot more confusing. The B&W sections are actually a Hollywood biopic in production about Baker's life which Baker is starring in, with Jane portraying one of his former wives. This “film within a film” convention, I think, works a lot better on stage than it does in movies – here it gave me a minute or so of complete confusion before I figured what was going on. (This biopic, BTW, also did not actually happen in real life.)

We're also shown Dick Bock, Baker's record producer (played as a quintessential music industry insider by Callum Keith Rennie). He continues to play an important role in Baker's career throughout Born To Be Blue but he's only referred to as “Dick” and never properly introduced.

Then Baker is assaulted and left seriously injured by a gang of toughs – according to the movie, sent by his drug dealer who is not forgiving of unpaid debts. His upper lip is smashed; a tooth is broken and he has to have other teeth pulled and use a denture. It's not clear he will be able to play the trumpet again.

This assault did indeed happen in the summer of 1966, but according to Deep in a Dream (a biography of Baker by James Gavin), Baker's accounts of what actually occurred – “the location, the date, the cast of characters, the aftermath, and most of all the cause” – varied “widely and suspiciously in ways few people ever bothered to question”. The book speculates the toughs were sent by a drug dealer Baker tried to rip off.

With Baker so badly injured, the biopic is cancelled, but Jane sticks around and help him through the long process of recovery. Most of Born To Be Blue follows that recovery, with Baker determined against what are clearly heavy odds to play again at his old level, to again be one of the best improvisers of his generation.

He plays in the bathtub until his mouth bleeds, and past that. He and Jane move back to his parent's place in California, and he plays for hours in the farm fields in between menial jobs. They go back on the road, and after he plays for the first time at a jam, the leader suggests he get more practice in before coming back. But eventually, with Bock's help, he gets work, and then a showcase for music industry insiders, and he starts to come back.

But despite his having cleaned up for a while, the drugs are still there – and more importantly, the lifelong crippling insecurity that makes him feel he needs the heroin fix.

Baker was an enigmatic character who himself kept telling different versions of his own life story – and was also the epitome of romance for many of his fans. Love and fascination was his stock in trade – along with a deep and abiding love of jazz – and those this movie provides in abundance.

Born To Be Blue plays with the facts of Chet Baker's life to make them more romantic, but perhaps that's only fitting. Baker was an enigmatic character who himself kept telling different versions of his own life story – and was also the epitome of romance for many of his fans. Love and fascination was his stock in trade – along with a deep and abiding love of jazz – and those this movie provides in abundance.

The film also provides an eloquent condemnation of the drug laws of the time and of methadone treatment, which did nothing to cure Baker's deep psychological need for heroin, but instead made sure he enriched drug dealers (at the end of his life, Baker was making more than $200,000 a year and spending almost everything on drugs). And it similarly gives an unromantic view of drugs, which undermined every bit of Baker's talent and drive.

Don't see this movie for a factual account of Baker's life. Instead, enjoy it for how it portrays Baker and the jazz musicians around him – and most importantly how it celebrates his music. That's his lasting legacy, and that this movie does justice to.

    – Alayne McGregor

Born To Be Blue will make its Ottawa debut on Friday, April 1 at the ByTowne Cinema, for a five-day run. See the ByTowne movie page for show-times.

It will also be shown at the Mayfair Theatre from April 8 to 14, See the Mayfair schedule.

 

Further reading:

Both books are available at the Ottawa Public Library.