“Who’s better, Miles Davis or me?” asks Chet Baker, the legendary jazz player, to a group of ecstatic fans waiting for him outside the bar where he’s scheduled to play. And then he’s on stage, and he kills it: his version of ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is impeccable. The audience loves him, and can’t get enough of him. But in a corner of the bar, Miles Davis is unimpressed. This is a serious blow for Chet’s confidence, and the first step towards the beginning of his lifelong addiction with heroin – at least according to the film within a film that sets the backstory here.
Born to Be Blue picks up Chet’s story from there: in California, 1966, the American trumpeter is hired to play himself in a biopic about his life. Reality and fiction immediately begin to blend when Chet asks out Jane, the actress who plays his ex-lover. Director Robert Budreau, who also wrote the screenplay, never intended to just put together a chronological sequence from childhood to death, following the old formula that we got used to seeing in many biographical films. He rather prefers to study the figure of Chet Baker by picking a specific phase of his career and analysing every aspect of it; he also doesn’t shy away from fictionalising it, if this helps deconstruct the character and convey his ideas.
What is certainly real is the inciting incident that kicks off the story. When Chet is savagely beaten by a gang of drug dealers, his embouchure (the correct positioning of lips and teeth used to play a trumpet) is permanently ruined, preventing him from playing his instrument. His decline is inevitable: left without friends and having compromised his career in music, Chet must answer to a probation officer and is hooked up on methadone to treat his drug addiction. Budreau adds Jane to the equation, fictionalising Chet’s struggle to develop a new embouchure and cope with the mounting pressure of making his comeback to the big stage.
Budreau presents the characters slowly, giving an unsteady pace to the first part of the film, but like in a painting, once enough brushes and details are added the result acquires depth, meaning, and originality. Eventually, it all makes sense: Chet Baker, and the flaws of a man suspended between his insecurities and ambitions; the inner contradictions of America, a country of underdeveloped but gorgeous rural areas and glamorous but alienating night clubs in the cities; the absurd beauty of heartbreaking, melancholic songs. When making films about achieving greatness, it still seems impossible to avoid the aura of cynicism already seen in Shine and Whiplash. But, once again, great performances make all the difference: Ethan Hawke is wholeheartedly absorbed in his role, and should take most of the credit for bringing a real and relatable character to life. Budreau’s greatest achievement, on the other hand, is conveying his passion for the subject (this is not his first film about Chet Baker) through his stylish but well-balanced direction, turning the fiction into something real, something we understand and can appreciate.
Words by Davide Prevarin