Born to be Blue

You wait ages for a jazz movie biopic and two come along at once. We’ve just had Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead, so now here’s Ethan Hawke as west coast trumpeter Chet Baker. So intertwined is the jazz world that Miles also makes quite an appearance in Chet’s film, too, as a legendary “cat” whose skill and reputation rather haunt Chet’s confidence.

First thing’s first, Hawke is really good here. He gets the doped out, distant languor of Chet Baker down to a tee, or to a vest.

As has become the fashion for jazz biopics, this doesn’t attempt the whole story, but is a vague, jazzy riff on a period in Chet’s life, a conflation of events and people, girlfriends in particular, all of whom are embodied by Carmen Ejiogo as she tries to tame the monkey on Chet’s back.

That is of course heroin, which rampaged through the jazz community but which Chet took to quasi-heroic levels of consumption and deification. He practically invented heroin chic, as fetishised in Bruce Webber’s cool doc Let’s Get Lost from 1988.

What this new film shows is what was lost. It captures a moment of sobriety in Chet’s life (well, methadone reliance) in which his cleaned up act nearly gets him back on track, nearly gets him accepted at the New York club Birdland where Dizzy and Miles ruled roost.

Hawke must have read, at least, Geoff Dyer’s chapter on Chet in the amazing book But Beautiful. ‘Chet put nothing of himself into his music and that’s what lent his playing its pathos,” he writes. “The music he played felt abandoned by him. He played old ballads and standards  with a long series of caresses that lead nowhere and subsided into nothing. Every time he played a note, he waved it goodbye.” Hawke gets the essence of this in his performance and that’s commendable.

The rest of the film could do with some space. It’s a little schematic and constricted and not as restlessly jazzy as it  could have been – it doesn’t have the made-up story about journalist on the run that Miles Ahead did, but after a promising start playing with art and fiction (Chet on the set of making a movie about himself), it does settle into more prosaic, straight ahead mode.

But Chet is still a ripe subject, a man so terrified of having to work at his art that he took the easy route out, and was still a legend. Hawke almost gets that bruised buttery voice right, the pain of singing and playing through dentures after his teeth were knocked out by dealers to whom he was in hock.

And the movie is full of that exquisite longing, which is an impressive achievement. It doesn’t quite make it into the big leagues of jazz movies, which is probably how Chet would have wanted it, but not necessarily liked it.

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