There's a scene in Born to Be Blue where Dizzy Gillespie tells Chet Baker to stick to the horn: "You know you shouldn't sing, man." But Baker, a trumpeter whose voice was untrained and curiously affectless, wasn't singing for Gillespie or his audience – he sang to himself, for himself, perhaps even about himself. His was a voice turned inward. "Let's defrost in a romantic mist, let's get crossed off everybody's list," he crooned on a love song turned narcissistic. "Let's get lost."
The Canadian-made Born to Be Blue is a creatively dramatized biopic focusing on Baker's lost years in the late 1960s – an era of the jazz trumpeter's comeback, methadone remedies and broken-mouth setbacks. In the 1950s, he was a matinee idol during the halcyon days of jazz as pop music; in the late seventies and eighties, he was a self-exiled junkie gigging in Europe and enjoying a mild resurgence in popularity. Director Robert Budreau's dreamy drama is an imagining of the vaguely specified time in between.
"In the 1960s, Chet had to dig deep and mount a comeback," Budreau says, referring to an era depicted in the film with the musician's release from an Italian jail and the losing of his front teeth in a street beating in California. "The film portrays Baker in a sympathetic light. I didn't want to create a dark, nasty portrait."
And he did not. Instead, the Baker subtly portrayed by Ethan Hawke is seen as a simple, inward-turned, melancholic, childlike, ego-centric and socially uneasy man who was born to play music. That solitary purpose – to strike blues notes with his horn or voice – is what makes it so tough to watch Baker, bleeding and in pain as he sits in a bathtub struggling to relearn the playing of his instrument with a damaged mouth.
"He was so naturally gifted that he never had to work for anything in his life until he got beat up," Hawke says. "It speaks so highly of him that he worked so hard to play again."
Toronto-based trumpeter Ben Promane taught Hawke the basics of playing the instrument as well as the nuance involved with blowing on a mouthpiece as if he had had his front teeth knocked out. It wasn't the horn-playing that intrigued Hawke, though.
"He was never known to be a good singer," Hawke says. "What he was was a truth-teller. It was very private. It feels very far away and lonely, and I thought I could capture that."
Filmed in Sudbury, Born to Be Blue is not historically precise in its details. Did Baker live on the Pacific Ocean in a van with an actress named Jane (played luminously by Carmen Ejogo)? No, not quite. "The film was designed as a reimagining of his comeback period, when he was down and out and struggling," Budreau says. "We wanted to catch the spirit of his time in California."
In that sense, Born to Be Blue resembles Jimi: All Is by My Side, John Ridley's 2013 biopic of rock-guitar icon Jimi Hendrix that relied on a degree of artistic license in its storytelling.
On the subject, Budreau is as clear as a Baker trumpet line. "We weren't interested in the specific detail of what exactly happened or what didn't happen." Which isn't to say that Budreau isn't interested in truth. A lost Baker era is captured – as is the black-and-white jazz world of the fifties, in the movie's meta film-within-a-film opening scene – and an artist is gently demystified.
"I want my life back," Hawke's Baker says simply at one point, explaining that drugs helped him play music the way he wished to, which was deep inside the note. The details aren't important, then. Born to Be Blue, not a jazz-history lesson, makes an honest proposal: With and within Chet Baker, let's get lost.