Born to be Blue
Chet Baker, before . . .
I’ve been a big fan of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker for most of my life. I have five or six of his records, I read his autobiography, and I’ve seen Bruce Weber’s excellent documentary about the very end of his life, Let’s Get Lost (1989), so I’d say that I’m as perfect of a target audience for the new film biopic of Chet Baker’s life, Born to be Blue, as it will ever have. Nevertheless, I was entirely ready to turn the movie off after a mere 18 minutes.
Why? Because act one of the story sucked, and due to that I am convinced that there was no way that acts two and three could possibly be any good, and surprise, they weren’t—folks dispute me that you can’t judge a film from just the first act, but you can; if they can’t get the first act somewhere near to right, there’s no way on earth they’ll do better with acts two and three.
In any event, Born to be Blue is an utterly run-of-the-mill film, with good-looking photography, an earnest performance by Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, and it’s relatively easy to sit through, even after I didn’t give a damn anymore 18 minutes in. But I kept going because it looked good, I was interested in the subject, and I had nothing better to do.
Back in the 1950s when jazz was the most popular form of music and was what most adults listened to, Chet Baker was one of its biggest stars, along with Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie. Chet Baker was dubbed the “James Dean of Jazz” because he was so handsome. He was also a great horn player, had a very cool, flat, vocal technique, and gave off a rebel attitude, much like James Dean and Miles Davis. And like many, if not most, of the great jazz players of the era, he was a junkie.
By 1966, due mainly to heroin, but also the severe decline in the popularity of jazz, Chet Baker’s career had pretty much crapped out. Then, to make matters much worse, he had all of his front teeth pistol-whipped out of his mouth, a particularly bad situation for a horn player. But Chet persevered and finally made a comeback in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and was still pretty good, although not nearly as good as he once was. But here’s the thing—the irony, if you will—jazz as a popular art form was over by then. In a mere ten years—from 1960 to 1970—jazz went from being the bestselling form of music there was to not selling at all.
Chet Baker died a penniless, toothless junkie in Amsterdam in 1978.
Well, that story sounds like a tragedy to me. And like all of the many tragic stories of musicians, actors, performers and writers who were great, then died young (or relatively young), you usually get at least the spectacular rise to fame as act one, which is usually fun, then acts two and three are usually a drag as drugs and/or booze destroy them and their talent.
Not so in Born to be Blue. The first 18 minutes of the film is set in two time periods: 1954 in black and white, and 1966 in color. As Baker’s intro, screenwriter, Robert Bordeau, who also directed, chose Baker’s east coast debut (he was already a famous star of what was known as West Coast Jazz) at the famous NYC jazz club, Birdland. It was a very big deal for a white jazz musician to play Birdland (located in Harlem), and Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were in attendance. As depicted in the film, and I have no doubt was true, Miles was mean and deprecating to Chet after the performance (Miles was known to be an obnoxious son of a bitch) and advised him to “go back to the west coast and live a little bit” before returning, and Chet was deeply saddened by Miles’ unfriendly welcome. But, what the film does not depict at all, after this unfriendly east coast welcome, Chet was able to return to L.A. where he was a drop-dead gorgeous superstar. Anyway, that was about it for 1954 in the film, except for the occasional quick, black and white glimpse now and then. Present day in the film is 1966, when he meets a cute chick, they go bowling, he woos her with his potty-mouth (which I found stupid), then he promptly gets his teeth knocked out by thugs.
18 minutes. Stop disc. Being the grizzled veteran film viewer that I am, it all became much too obvious to me what the rest of the story would now be, and I was taken aback—this was going to be the Chet Baker comeback story of him learning to play the trumpet again after losing his teeth. It was to be a heartwarming tale of grit, determination, love and redemption.
Except (spoiler alert), the cute chick dumps him because he won’t quit using heroin, and he dies, still using, at the age of 57 in Amsterdam, washed up with no listening to his music anymore. He was not redeemed, and if you watch the documentary, Let’s Get Lost, shot right near the end of his life, he’s a prematurely aged junkie teetering on the edge of death, which he promptly accomplished soon after the doc was shot (it came out posthumously in 1989).
So, 18 minutes into Born to be Blue, I clearly understood that they were, in my opinion, telling the wrong story about the great Chet Baker. There isn’t a hint in the film that he was ever a great and famous musician; all we get is the story of a fuck-up who got his teeth knocked out, then learned to play again—big fuckin’ deal. Everything we get in the whole film should have been just act three. To not see Chet’s rise to fame, then his stardom, is a total rip-off.
Chet Baker, after.