You’ve seen Chet Baker’s face before. It’s an undying-icon face, like Marilyn Monroe’s or James Dean’s. In fact, he was known as “the James Dean of jazz.”
He had high-end male fashion-model looks before destroying them utterly with drugs, and enough talent to be taken seriously in the jazz world. Which is saying something.
Baker could have ridden those looks to movie stardom, but he most definitely was not of the actor tribe—the man was an out-and-out musician; “out-and-out” being an especially apropos adjective, since in the jazz world, playing while high on drugs is known as “playing out.” And Chet Baker was always high.
He shrugged in the face of movie stardom, but ended up on the silver screen despite that celluloid nonchalance, in Bruce Webber’s transcendent 1988 documentary “Let’s Get Lost,” shortly before his heroin-fueled demise.
Director Dino De Laurentis wanted to put Baker in a movie; it never happened, but in “Born to be Blue,” director Robert Budreau made some stuff up, moved events around, sort of feng shui’d Baker’s life as it were, imaginatively. He puts Baker in that movie that never actually happened.
So, this rendition of Baker has Baker making a fictitious thespian go of it, playing himself eventually falling in love with the actress playing his future wife, Jane (Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in “Selma”).
This is to have occurred at a Chet Baker low-point in the late 1960s, when he was all jammed up from heroin addiction and a fizzling career.
“Fizzling” having largely to do here with a depiction of one of the many stories of how Baker at one point lost all his teeth. This would be the owed-drug-dealers-money, got-pistol-whipped version. Pretty nasty.
Baker had to painstakingly re-develop his embouchure. As he tells fellow jazz icon, Dizzy Gillespie, he had to develop three embouchures, a left, a right, and middle—all of which he had to utilize before his false teeth would fall out.
Film-wife Jane is likewise fictitious; an amalgamation of a long line of various and sundry women in Baker’s life. The man had, after-all, rock-star looks and played gigs, which means groupies.
Which leads to the first weak point of the film. The role of Jane is one of such raging co-dependence to Baker’s raging addict, that it accomplishes two things: it back-lights the rampant Baker navel-gazing addict/hedonist/self-involvedness to the point of making him mildly unappealing.
Secondly, it’s subpar casting in that Carmen Ejogo is such a winsome, self-possessed alpha-female, the likes of whom would clearly not put up with such dithering loser behavior for that ridiculously long—if at all. It makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.
Brolin Better Baker
Ethan Hawke is good in the role, but a more interesting casting decision would have been Josh Brolin, who’s got more of Baker’s tiny nose and power jaw, as well as more mimicry talent. Actors like Brolin (the young Kurt Russell comes to mind) have a sports type mentality that would have taken on the challenge of this role with the intention of knocking it out of the park, a la Russell’s uncanny Elvis portrayal back in the late ’70s.
Like lots of hair-gifted young actors say, “I’ve got the hair for it.” Hawke certainly has the hair for it, but Brolin really has the hair for it. Brolin could still do a late-career Chet Baker.
Once the whole business of Chet acting in a movie about himself goes away, the feeling is one of mild relief, but the overall feel of the film is that it’s nevertheless still too low-conflict. There are plenty of tension-generating situations, and yet they generate no tension.
To be fair, Baker himself may really have just been a low-conflict junkie kinda guy, who liked to get lost. However, the bloody scene of him struggling to train himself up a new embouchure to go with his new set of fake choppers shows he was above-average determined.
Pretty faces are a dime a dozen and so is talent, but determination determines who makes it. And Baker had all three. Which is why he’s an icon.
This is a role Oscar will love. Which is going to set up a very interesting situation for the 2017 Academy Awards. In April, actor Don Cheadle’s film “Miles Ahead,” about super jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (whom Chet Baker was in awe of) comes out.
Cheadle wrote it, directed it, starred in it, and took up trumpet in a serious way four years ago to start getting in character. Sounds like a sports type actor looking to knock it out of the park. Imagine if Hawke gets the Oscar? Worse yet, imagine if Don Cheadle doesn’t even get nominated—and Ethan Hawke wins the Oscar?
‘Born to be Blue’
Director: Robert Budreau
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Calum Keith Rennie, Kedar Brown, Kevin Hanchard
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Release Date: Mar. 25
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5