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Chet Baker

Review: Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke in ‘Born to Be Blue’

The first shot of Born to Be Blue is a close-up of a trumpet, laid on the dirty floor of what turns out to be a ratty jail cell. The notorious jazz musician Chet Baker is in the clink, presumably for one drug offense or another. He’s on the dirty floor, too. Baker’s horn sits there, gaping at him. He can never fill its maw, never plug up the emptiness, never satisfy his various cravings. Just then a big black spider crawls out of the trumpet’s bell.

Hmm. Maybe Baker has the DTs, or maybe the film is telling us not to take everything here literally. Writer/director Robert Budreau underscores his approach with the next sequence: Baker (played by Ethan Hawke) has been rescued from his lockup and plunked into a Hollywood film project of his own life.

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Chet Baker, Choppy Waters: ‘Let’s Get Lost’

Chet Baker

1987, Santa Monica. Chet Baker is weathered and worn. Filmed in black and white in the back of a convertible at night, framed by a pair of lovely young models, with street lights and headlights catching his features in a slash or a flash, his once smooth cheeks are leathery with age beyond his years and his face is sinking in to his skull as if his youth was eaten away from within.

1953, Los Angeles. The contact sheets of William Claxton’s photos from a recording session picks Chet Baker out of the ensemble. Holding his trumpet with an easy nonchalance, hanging with a laid-back presence of knowing he belongs, with eyes as soulful as James Dean and hair like Elvis Presley and cheekbones that look carved by Michelangelo, Baker is the young Adonis of cool jazz.

“He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful,” remarks a former lover, one of many tossed overboard to the choppy waters of his life. In the lens of Bruce Weber’s documentary, however, he’s still beautiful, a survivor wearing the scars of a turbulent life to a fashion shoot, the stark black and white picking out every scuff and wrinkle like it was earned. What we first see as a “seamy looking drugstore cowboy-cum-derelict,” in the words of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, takes on a ravaged grace through the course of Let’s Get Lost. In part that’s due to the hushed spell of his singing voice on ballads from the American songbook but mostly it’s because of Weber’s gaze.

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