Jazzinematology : BORN TO BE BLUE – a Metafiction of Chet Baker’s Life


born-to-be-blue-jazzualityIt’s the music. It’s the movie. It’s how Jazz colored-up the whole visual experience. It’s our very own recommendation to you. It is JAZZINEMATOLOGY

BORN TO BE BLUE: A Smoothly Romantic Yet Wild Jazz Metafiction – from 28th Tokyo International Film Festival 

As one of the largest international film festivals throughout Asia and the only Japanese international film festival accredited by Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF), Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) has now reached its 28th edition since 1985. Playing my part as Indonesian movie critics and film journalist, I was covering the festival as their invited journalist and press members since its 26th edition in 2013. What’s interesting is, this year there is serious dose of jazz in its Competition Section. One that really fits into Jazzuality special section: ‘Jazzinematology’, which I also contributed to.

born-to-be-blue-2We don’t find too many ‘jazz movies’ lately. Of course, last year’s “Whiplash” might already opened up wider path for the genre. Then, get ready too for Miles Davis’ biopic starring Don Cheadle that will come out next year. Sure, but here’s the thing. As one of the competition film in this year’s festival, Canadian movie “BORN TO BE BLUE” directed by Robert Budreau is surely something to look at. Before it arrived in Tokyo, this movie – which soon will be released internationally by IFC Films – was shown in the Toronto International Film Festival 2015, in ‘Special Presentations’ section.

Starring Ethan Hawke as the real life of legendary trumpeter Chet Baker: the West Coast jazz sensation – the Elvis Presley of jazz. Said to be one of Hawke’s finest perfomances throughout his acting career, the movie actually never played as a straight biopic. Instead, Budreau came with a different approach to portray Chet Baker’s life events piece by piece, combining factual with mostly fictional events. It’s based on some key facts, but on the deepest layer, the movie tells a story of a musician struggling with addiction, a chance to comeback, some sexy romance and overall, the spirit of jazz through movie-in-movie style of storytelling which makes the movie even more interesting. Carmen Ejogo co-starred as Baker’s fictional love interest.

born-to-be-blue-3It’s carving a segment of Chet Baker’s downhill career due to heroin abuse, financial loss and public disgrace, but the movie started off in the late 60’s when Baker in an Italian prison got an offer from the Hollywood producer for a movie role. Through flashback the movie tributes his career at the peak around mid 50’s including his gig at Birdland, being called as the inventor of West Coast swing and the #1 trumpet player by the DownBeat readers’ poll. The movie also shows that he’s being hated by some East Coast musicians including Miles Davis (played by Kedar Brown). Baker then threw himself to lots of groupies and drug addictions. In a hope to get his career back, not only he was trying to make it into the movie, he worked with Jane (Ejogo), his girlfriend to overcome his addictions, trying to pull himself back together after an incident with drugdealers that caused a bad damage to his mouth., Baker staged a comeback from small bars to one final live recording gig with the trust he got from Jane, his reticent producer, Dick Bock (played by Callum Keith Rennie) and also Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard).

born-to-be-blue-4At the movie screening, accompanied by the movie producer Jennifer Jonas and music composer David Braid, director Robert Budreau answered my question about how he actually describes the biopic subgenre of the movie; is it a metafiction, anti-biopic or something else? He described that as an improvisational art as he wanted to capture the spirit of jazz in the story. Based on those key facts from various sources, he said that Chet Baker was actually approached by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis, Fellini’s producer, to do a movie about himself. “The movie never happened, but I like the idea of pretending that it did happen. And I think using that as a stepping stone to kind of create an improvisational surreal kind of world made sense for a jazz movie.” said Budreau. “Ethan shared the sentiments with me and I think there is a certain fallacy with the purported authenticity of certain biopics, Nobody really knows what happened, even Chet Baker himself, in describing the beating which he suffered as one of the central theme in our story very differently over time. I think calling it a re-imagining of his life in the late ‘60s is how we like to describe it”, Budreau added.

About the Carmen Ejogo’s part (Jane), Budreau explained that the female character supposed to combine all the women and wives in Chet Baker’s life into one. A composite of Baker’s all love interests. “So Jane clearly didn’t exist. She was the female that Chet was starring in a movie with and I was able to focus on and make the film much more of a love story, Again, because Chet Baker did have a lot of women in his life. And it allowed us to explore a more universal love story in that sense.”


As for the struggle with addiction, it really something Chet Baker was infamous for, apart from his acclaimedly soulful and lyrical trumpet style. Chet mostly played his best up until the mid-50’s, before the addiction struck in. This is an inseparable part in explaining his struggle to comeback, but they try to show it in a non-judgmental way. Thus, it brings out his essential being as a human, also describing the complexity of the character. Along with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie as portrayed in the film, they mentioned Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker a lot too. Although some of their parts were fictional, but Baker did mentioned Davis during many interviews. The point is with jazz in the 40’s to 50’s, Budreau tried to describe America’s racial issues, a conflict between East Coast and West Coast jazz musicians during that era, along with a bit of political turmoil. The movie describes how Baker as the most popular, good looking white jazz musicians, still tried to seek respect of the black East Coast jazz musicians by entering their musical territory. It’s depicted on one of the key scenes where Baker played in Birdland for the first time in mid 50’s.

Budreau also talked about how Ethan Hawke brought out that complexity in his role – multidimentionally as a rock-star kind of jazz musician. That he had a full six months practice of trumpet and the fingerings, even did his own singing, and moreover, the part of David Braid who composed the whole rendition of Chet Baker’s classics were used in the movie.

Born-to-be-Blue-(2)As a jazz pianist, Braid added his own story behind the music. To him, BORN TO BE BLUE was like a dream project because Chet Baker was the artist of the first album he ever bought. Chet is also the most influential musicians to him. Braid is really into Chet’s lyrical style and feel that Chet Baker’s music has been a part of his musical identity from the very early age. Re-composing Baker’s music in the film, in other hand, was a real challenge to Braid because he’s not just doing re-arrangements, he also had to choose the songs selectively and arranged them in a certain way. The songs have to be enjoyable but at the same time able to communicate the struggle of the injured artist as how the central theme of Budreau’s idea is. Luckily he has Kevin Turcotte, a Canadian trumpeter and Ethan to work those arrangements come alive on screen.

One of the hardest parts of BORN TO BE BLUE to Braid is the scene where Baker keeps on failing technically in a recording session. “Kevin was so magnificent in building this scene with his expert trumpet play. And clearly – somehow, in a beautiful way, improvised it.” The official soundtrack album from Braid will be available in iTunes and stores soon in December.

So just like jazz, the movie improvises. It might be a metafiction of Chet Baker’s life, but also captured the spirit of his remarkable legacies, above all, jazz.

Written by : Daniel Irawan (https://danieldokter.wordpress.com/)



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