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Chet Baker was ‘Born to Be Blue’

The ending of “Born to Be Blue” will break your heart.

In one sense, it’s a happy ending. A triumph. The world is better off for what happens.

In another, it’s a terrible personal tragedy. That’s why it will break your heart.

Good for writer/director Robert Budreau. It’s the most impressive thing that he does and it’s something worth doing in this movie. He does it creatively and well.

It’s somewhat astounding that two of the most popular jazz trumpet players of the 1950s (and later) are simultaneously being celebrated in major American films – Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead” (see review on Page 4) and the white jazz star he influenced most, Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue.”

Davis was a giant of American music. Baker was a wonderful trumpet player with a small, but pure, gift who only made major music in his career as the extraordinary countervoice to Gerry Mulligan in Mulligan’s still-astonishing pianoless 1950s quartet (whose music has been cunningly described as “bopsiland”).

As long as Baker was tooling around with a road map supplied by Mulligan, one of the great creative figures in his musical era, he was making jazz at the highest level. You never see an actor playing Mulligan in “Born to Be Blue.” You only hear Mulligan’s name once. It flies by, in passing, while a music bigshot waxes nostalgic about what we presume to be the recording studio of World Pacific Records.

“Born to Be Blue” is about the other Baker, the West Coast “cool jazz” trumpet avatar, much loved by female jazz fans because he also sang standards in a very soft, muzzy, romantic voice (“My Funny Valentine,” the title song), played simple melodically clear solos and had the most photogenic white cheekbones in all of jazz.

“The James Dean of Jazz” is how they sold him back then. It was easy to do, with his slicked-back hair, big cheekbones and sensitive, haunted brown eyes.

A good argument could be made that Davis was far more striking looking in his prime than Baker, but Davis wasn’t merely black, he was a very dark-skinned black man and we’re talking about the 1950s, an era where Petula Clark hadn’t yet caused a seismic TV audience explosion by merely touching Harry Belafonte’s arm on the tube. (Explaining the 1950s to young people today is a little like explaining the tribal folk cultures of Paraguay.)

I don’t want to sound condescending here. Baker was a wonderful musician and musical spirit in his very small but very pure way. It’s just that his huge popularity – all the legendry that still exists (see the documentary “Let’s Get Lost”) – is based as much on those photogenic white cheekbones as his music.

He is played very well by Ethan Hawke (an actor less handsome than Baker) in “Born to Be Blue,” a clever and ultimately moving variation on the story of a junkie musician struggling mightily for a comeback.

Baker needed to struggle so mightily because one day, while making a fictional Hollywood film about himself (in this movie), he and his girlfriend and co-star (Carmen Ejogo) are beset by drug dealers he owes. They knock his front teeth out, thereby ruining a trumpet player’s embouchre.

That dental calamity really happened, despite the embroidery. The rest, as the movie has it, is a love story fully interlarded with fiction.

So we watch Baker trying to relearn his horn with false teeth while his girlfriend pushes him past junkiedom into methadone maintenance.

The Baker we see is a sweet-voiced, sensitive, sex-loving young man who likes to brag about how often he can perform sexually in limited periods. (His new girlfriend then points out that he may be hurrying matters a bit and suggests he replace his usual molto allegro tempo with a more romantic largo.)

If Davis tells Baker he isn’t quite ready for Birdland he takes it to heart. (The idea of a 1954 group led by Davis and Dizzy Gillespie at Birdland is pure fiction.)

It all works because of Hawke and Ejogo. Hawke, as a Bakerish singer, rolls over barlines not because he’s a daring free jazzman but because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. It still works.

And, as I said, that ending – which sneaks up on you with no small art – will move you.

Jazz, in its legendry, attracted truly great photographers right from the beginning who understood how charismatic musical subjects can be. Those photographs made Baker an icon – literally.

He then, as a singer and player, made himself a romantic star while his old “frenemy” Mulligan, gave him a reputation as a creative musician.

In the world of movies, don’t ever expect to see “Bernie’s Tune: The Gerry Mulligan Story.”

Mulligan’s cheekbones were good but his eyes constantly laughed and twinkled. A jovial and, well, very different visual statement, you know?



3 stars

Title: “Born to Be Blue”

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen McHattie, Janet-Laine Green

Director: Robert Budreau.

Running time: 97 minutes

Rating: R for drugs, language, some sexuality and brief violence.

The Lowdown: Jazz trumpet player Chet Baker battles heroin addiction to make a comeback.

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