Chances are that even if you’re not a jazz fan you’ll have heard the above song, ‘My Funny Valentine’ as sung by Chet Baker. He’s the subject of a new biopic Born to be Blue starring Ethan Hawke which I saw in The Lighthouse last weekend. I read Deep In A Dream by James Gavin years ago so I was familiar with Baker’s story: a trumpet player who exemplified West Coast cool jazz as opposed to the harder, more experimental East Coast players like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, a guy with James Dean good looks that he famously ruined with hard living, and who died when he was just fifty-eight, falling out of a hotel window high on coke and heroin.
The film is factual in some respects. Yes, Baker’s life took a tragic turn at the age of twenty-seven when he discovered heroin. It’s true that his teeth were kicked out in a fight, so he had to learn to play again with dentures, a grisly process depicted in detail in the film. (I went to see this with my Dad who is a sax player and who has had problems with his teeth in the past, so he easily related to Chet. He couldn’t watch the scenes of Chet practising, gums bleeding, obviously in tremendous physical pain, but also desperate to play again.) Yes, Chet was imprisoned for drug use in Italy and America, and he fucked up his romantic relationships due to his addiction, although Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) is a composite character.
Other elements are clearly fictional. The shots of Baker playing trumpet in the surf, on top of a caravan, resting on the roof of a snow covered shed, in corn fields, on the edge of a cliff, in the bath, struck me as being the kind of romantic notions a director might have about a musician. (What serious trumpet player brings his horn into the sea? Sea salt + brass = disaster!) While the individual shots are beautifully composed, the montage gets a little cheesy.
The film is stylised, with flashbacks in black and white and then returning to colour to show the events of 1966, the year Chet lost his teeth, had to learn to play again and made his comeback playing in Birdland. Ethan Hawke is excellent as Baker, conveying his charm, vulnerability and insecurity. Apparently Hawke was first approached about playing Baker fifteen years ago and he has obviously done his homework since. He learned how to play trumpet for the film and also wore dentures to correctly portray Baker’s mumble.
Fittingly Born to be Blue struck me like a jazz tune, an interpretation of Chet’s life rather than factually rigorous. I thoroughly enjoyed it.