Saturday, April 02, 2016

Review: Born to Be Blue

I was looking forward to March 25th because two films on my watch list were going to open. The obvious was 'Superman v Batman'. The less obvious was the Chet Baker film 'Born to be Blue'. Well the latter was opening nowhere in the Bay Area, so I went to see the former. Enjoyed it. May see it again even. Well this weekend the Ethan Hawke/Chet Baker film opened in the South Bay and decided to give it a look. I must say I was somewhat uneasy going to see it. After all there is so much negativity around Chet in books that I was afraid of what might be highlighted in this film.

Well, the film is a HIGHLY fictionalized account of Baker's life. It uses the device of Chet being cast in a film playing himself, juxtaposed with flashbacks to his earlier mega-popular years. In an interesting touch his teeth are highlighted. At the age of 12 or 13 Baker lost one of his front teeth in an accident playing with friends. He played with that missing tooth. Later, as shown in the film, he suffered a major beating which not only knocked out his other front teeth(top), but according to Artt Frank, gave him permanent  nerve damage. He was told he would never play again. So in the current time of the film, he is shown wearing dentures.So you can chart his timeline in the film by the way his teeth are shown.

A major part of the film is Baker's comeback from the beating, relearning how to play, and getting another gig(he had a famous one in his very early years) at Birdland in New York City. Apparently Hawke learned to play the trumpet for the film. Anyone who has played the trumpet realized the horn is a cruel taskmaster, and when learning you are going to struggle and make horrible sounds. So this part of the film has some realism to it. For an excellent eyewitness account of Baker's real comeback, ie relearning to play the horn, check out Artt Frank's excellent 'Chet Baker:The Missing Years'

Of course a major part of the film is Baker's drug problem. Hawke's sense of Baker is around these lines. He comes across as high......somewhat passive......very self absorbed......a leaf at the mercy of the wind. Contrast that with the real Baker. He was multi lingual. By his own account during his time in Jail in Italy he learned Italian and came out a fluent speaker. There is an interview on youtube where Baker gives an interview exclusively in Italian. And there is the fact that Baker was a natural musical genius. He could hear any song and play it in any of the 12 keys. If he heard it twice he could solo to it. Very little of this side of Chet if any is brought out in Hawke's portrayal of him.

For me the most interesting part of the film was the apparent wound he had from male figures that he gave power to. The portrayal of Chet's father is chilling. Nothing his son can do is good enough to please him. And the Miles Davis character in the film tells Chet his playing is candy.....and to come back when he's lived some. Baker was very inluenced by Davis's 'Birth of the Cool'. In fact in his autobiography
"As Though I Had Wings' he states that twenty years later he still listened to that album. In an interview when asked what he listened to when he was not playing, one of Chet's answers was 'Miles old stuff'.

The music in the film is a disappointment. Hawke sings several Baker songs well, but it is obvious he is copying Chet. The trumpet solos are skillfully done but none of it is Chet's own horn. So I guess this is where I some it all up. If you want to do something different and want to go see a jazz movie, I think this will keep your attention. But if you want to know or to hang out with Chet Baker, check out HIS music. There is no substitute.