Born To Be Blue chooses focus over sprawling story

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Born to Be Blue
RPL Film Theatre
April 8-10

American jazz legend Chet Baker had the same convoluted and tragic existence as many of his contemporaries. A heroin addict for most of his life, Baker squandered his fame and fortune, and came very close to being unable to play after being beaten to a pulp over drugs.

The whipping cost Baker his front teeth, ruining his embouchure  (the manner in which lips and facial muscles are applied to a trumpet). The film Born to Be Blue covers the period between the beating and Baker’s return to stage. That said, more than feel-good rehabilitation story, this is the portrait of a man whose wellbeing and art are in opposite corners.

Born to Be Blue is not your standard biopic. First, rather than a sprawling multi-decade epic, it focuses on a very specific period of Chet Baker’s life — his darkest and arguably most significant. To fully explore this interlude, writer/director Robert Budreau (That Beautiful Somewhere) created a composite female lead who becomes the catalyst of the jazzman’s highs and lows.

While the film is populated with good ideas and weighty sequences, none of it would work without a committed performance by Ethan Hawke. The actor is in fine form in Born to Be Blue: Hawke embodies Baker’s brittleness and penchant for self-destruction, but keeps the audience on his side by making Chet a kind man worth saving.

I met Robert Budreau a couple of weeks ago in Toronto. Forget your stubbly, shabby-looking indie filmmaker — Budreau is a jacket-and-tie kind of guy, perfectly shaved and well-spoken. His relationship with Baker goes back six years, when he directed a short starring Stephen McHattie about the later years of the foremost West Coast jazzman.

Ethan Hawke is strikingly good. Was he your first choice as Chet Baker?

I didn’t write Born to Be Blue with him or anyone in mind, but Ethan seemed so right to me. He looks like Chet Baker in his 40s and he has a certain musical soul. Whenever you’re able to capture a performance like his, it’s very rewarding. So much of the struggle to get this story to the screen was about building a multidimensional character; it feels good he’s being recognized for it.

How do you extract a performance like this from an actor?

I’m a collaborative director — I welcome other people’s styles. Ethan jumped right in and had all kind of great ideas. Because he has worked in theatre and with Richard Linklater and others in a collaborative way, I never felt threatened. Ultimately, acting is a deeply personal thing and it’s my job to see what an actor can offer and try to pull that out of them. When you have a smart actor who has a good sense of story — Ethan has written and directed himself — you’re crazy not to take advantage of that.

Did you ever adopt a more traditional approach in previous incarnations of this project?

I was never interested in doing a traditional biopic that ended with death. I’ve grown tired of those movies and it’s not the right thing to do for Chet Baker or jazz in general. Even in a traditional jazz film like Clint Eastwood’s Bird, the focus is on a tiny period of Charlie Parker’s life. To me, it was important not to be a slave of chronological events: you want to capture the spirit of jazz, but also emotionally connect with people.

You created a female lead (Carmen Ejogo) to accompany Chet Baker on his journey. Is this a composite character or a creation of yours entirely?

Jane is a fictitious character and composite to a certain degree. Chet had many wives and lovers through his career. Since we were focusing on a short time frame, it seemed like the right thing to do. You look at most biopics, they invent all kinds of things and yet claim to be based on a true story. People can get hung up on what happened or not. In countless interviews, Chet Baker himself gives completely different versions of how he lost his teeth. He didn’t even know and it’s his story!

The film’s showstopper is Ethan Hawke’s rendition of Chet Baker’s classic, “My Funny Valentine”. Given the number of things that could’ve gone wrong, how did you pull it off?

From early on, I wanted the actor to sing — I had no intention of using any Chet Baker master recordings. Also, I didn’t want Ethan to mimic him. I’d rather him capture the spirit of Chet, but also be original and fresh. To find that balance, we listened to Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line. The first time I saw the movie I thought he sounded exactly like Johnny Cash. Next to YouTube videos of Cash, they’re not remotely alike, but Phoenix sells it. That gave us the confidence we could do a similar thing. Chet sang like he was playing his trumpet, which makes for a very strange phrasing.

From a financial perspective, how do you sell a movie about an old trumpeter?

First of all, you sell the movie as a story about great music and issues like race and addiction. There’s something universal about Chet’s story that’s still applicable today. While jazz has become more niche, Chet has a good following around the world, particularly in Europe and Japan. We took the film to Tokyo and they went crazy.

Also, people love Ethan Hawke. He injects this character with sympathy and likeability even though at times it’s quite dark.