Born to be Blue

By Tim McEown

Mailed on March 21, 2016

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Dear Heroin

Dear Heroin,

You never lose, do you? As the most insidious daughter of the poppy, you seem to trump every other consideration: wife, career, teeth, (more on that later). And you do seem to have a particular affinity for Jazz.

Ethan Hawke is the best choice imaginable to play Chet Baker: a trumpet player in the same league as iconic musicians Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Baker reached the height of his fame in the early to mid fifties and then plummeted to earth, largely because you rode him all the way down—down to the point where some unpaid dealers knocked his front teeth out in 1968. Just to be clear, playing the trumpet definitely requires your two front teeth (see: embouchure.)

Born To Be Blue is a shaggy, undisciplined mess of a film, yet it still works remarkably well. Ethan Hawke inhabits this role in a way I’ve not seen in decades. The supporting cast—including Canadian stalwarts Callum Keith Rennie and Stephen McHattie—are great, their performances uniformly understated and complex. The film begins with Baker being plucked from a European jailhouse in order to star in his own biopic. After this there are a series of complicated digressions melding the fictional film Baker is in with the actual film Hawke is making about Baker being in a film. Once Born To Be Blue steps out of that muddled first act, though, and adheres to the usual biopic convention, it really allows the story to take hold.

And make no mistake, this is a fascinating story in its detail, even if it is an amalgam of fact and invention, playing fast and loose with chronology as well as real and imagined characters. This is the story of Baker’s fall and rise and then eventual heroin-soaked apotheosis in and around the period from about 1961 to the early seventies.

What Born To Be Blue really sinks its teeth into is exploring the relationship between substance dependency and a particular kind of artist. Hawke, for a variety of reasons, is utterly convincing as a drug-addled cad that just wants to score, fuck, and play his trumpet. The actual musical performances in the film (and there are a few) of Baker’s works are unusually affecting, capturing a little of what made Baker special. And always there is the pull of the needle, and Baker’s constant, if sub rosa, struggle with unpacking the relationship between that ever present need and his life’s work.

The second act, with its ups and downs—from the non-consensual tooth removal to his eventual return to playing, as well as a flourishing love relationship—is utterly conventional in its beats, but still manages to be captivating. Part of that is the perverse certainty that somehow or another you will rear your seductive head in the third act and bring it all crashing down. There is no more painful, yet fascinating, slow motion train wreck than the ebbs and flows of a junkies’ life—and make no mistake, more than anything else, you and that needle define Baker’s existence.

What ever else the audience can take from this film, in one thing it is completely honest. There is nothing more important to a junkie than a fix. Love, career, health, ego, integrity all come a poor second to their first love—and that is why you always win, even if you end up killing those that love you most.



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