Jazz, trumpeter Chet Baker was among the most photogenic of jazz musicians. Yet by the time he died in 1988 at age 58, heroin addiction had so transformed his once-boyish appearance that he looked decades older.
Baker’s rise and perilous fall is natural fodder for a biopic, and Born to Be Blue is particularly resonant.
The film opens in 1966, as Baker, played by Hawke, lies on the floor of an Italian jail cell, hallucinating. He’s bailed out by a Hollywood producer who wants to put him in a movie — about Chet Baker.
Blue flashes back to 1954, when Baker topped jazz polls. Hawke looks too old to play the younger Baker, and his trumpet play sounds compromised. In effect, it’s a film within the film: a damaged Baker playing his younger self.
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After Baker’s drug dealer beats him so badly that doctors tell him he’ll never play trumpet again,
Baker redevelops his technique, leading to a new depth in his music. It’s the same difference we hear between Baker’s effortless 1950s vocals and the wounded voice of his later comeback. The film takes its time reaching that transition, but it’s heartbreaking.
Late in the film, Baker says at a comeback gig: “Miles (Davis) said, ‘Come back when you’ve lived a little.’ I’ve lived a little.” Born to Be Blue is a stronger film once it has too.
‘Born to Be Blue’
Rated PG for drug use, strong language, graphic violence and sexual situations. 1:38. Kentucky.