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View From The Inside
By Randy Freedman
The Life and Film Life of Chet Baker
Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker Jr. was an American jazz trumpeter, flugelhornist and vocalist.
Baker is remembered for his seemingly effortless musical talent, the sheer brilliance of his
early career, his chiseled good looks and his well-publicized reoccurring addiction to drugs.
Jazz historian Dave Gelly once described him as “James Dean, Sinatra and Leon ‘Bix’
Beiderbecke rolled into one.” And in James Gavin’s biography, Deep in a Dream: The Long
Night of Chet Baker, he writes that it was said that Baker was “an immoral man who frequently
treated friends, family and associates badly.”
Born to Be Blue is writer/director Robert Budreau’s 2015 film that reimagines Baker’s attempt
during the late 1960s to come back from both drug use and an attack he received at the hands
of nefarious associates. And the less recent, but equally enduring Let’s Get Lost by director
Bruce Webber, is a 1988 documentary that brings value to both jazz and Baker fans alike, mixing
in interviews with friends, lovers, family and associates with rare, vintage footage of Baker both
on and offstage.
Photographer William Claxton, who was a talented, successful photographer before he met Baker
in Los Angeles in the early ‘50s, took many memorable photographs of the trumpeter. As a result
of their collaboration, and Baker’s talent, a jazz star was born.
Claxton came away with some of the most iconic photographs of the era, and when looking at Claxton’s stunning photos of Baker, it’s not a surprise that in the notes accompanying the images Claxton describes Baker as having “more than a photogenic quality: he had a unique sense of presence in front of the camera,” adding he “instinctively knew what to do, how to move, which way to look to catch the best light, and yet, I don’t know that he was ever conscious of these actions.”
Many feel that Claxton’s efforts successfully captured Baker’s likeness before heroin had sunk its claws into him—an addiction that helped to drive his fame and notoriety as well as land him in jail on many occasions, later producing a precipitous fall from public favor due to his self-destructive behavior.
Baker appeared in these early photos as a young star on the cusp—still untarnished—with an air of freshness about him that he would not long retain. It’s almost incomprehensible to imagine this young man became the haggard, grizzled Chet Baker of the ’70s and ’80s, one so drug-addled that he was said to have apparently died from a fall out of a second-story window in Amsterdam.
Baker never looked as good again as he does in these photos, which capture that moment in time when he appeared as smoldering and sexy as his playing style.
“It was the first time I learned what star quality meant, what charisma meant,” said Claxton, in Let’s Get Lost.
Born to Be Blue seems to be a movie interested in defining what Claxton said about the meaning of Baker’s charisma, and how it operated. Outside of talent, there was something about Baker’s appearance—the James Dean hair, the handsome, angular face, and the prominent jawline—that drew audiences in. His gift as a musical artist isn’t in doubt, nor is his decades long, frank use of heroin or his fatal swoon in 1988 from that hotel window. But unlike many other biopics of famous drug-addled performers, Born to Be Blue tries to get at what exactly the Baker persona and appeal was all about: What were the things that made him a star—much less the rarity of a jazz star—of such appeal?
Baker met and married Halema Alli in the spring of 1956, when she was just twenty years old. While onstage at the Rouge Lounge in Detroit, Baker locked eyes with the dark-skinned, shorthaired young woman at the bar. Halema lived in town with her East Indian family. She did not have a foreign accent, but her exotic look attracted him. A member of Baker’s band would later call her a “quiet, sweet homegirl, and probably fantastically naïve.”
Helema had never had a boyfriend, nor even been to a jazz club before. But Baker’s foreboding
sexiness may have titillated her while at the same time her reserved personality was intriguing him.
“She looked like a mirage,” Baker told a friend, years later. “She was so beautiful. A little bit timid,
especially with men, but very intelligent, very sensitive and sweet.”
Halema was overwhelmed when Baker started bombarding her with calls from other cities, and even
more startled when, after so little time in her company, he proposed. Baker picked her up in Detroit
and drove her to St. Louis where they were wed by a justice of the peace.
It all occurred so quickly that she barely grasped what was happening. “I ran away from home,” she said.
“I just left one day, don’t ask me why. Nobody knew I was leaving. A girlfriend who helped me leave
called my parents to tell them so they wouldn’t worry about me, and after I got married, then I told them.”
Things began romantically enough as Baker tried to make his best impression on the shy young woman.
He took her with him everywhere—on helicopter rides and deep-sea diving trips, to gigs all over the country
and bought her presents including a brand new Thunderbird for her twenty-first birthday.
Baker introduced her to all his musician friends, but she hardly said a word to them because they scared her.
Perhaps Halema sensed that they went out of their way to be nice and were on their best behavior around her.
Baker wrote and recorded a song “Helema,” and was also on good behavior around her. He did nothing
around her to raise her suspicions or anything that would give her reason to doubt him.
“I didn’t even know what a junkie was,” she later remarked, regarding his problem. At first, she didn’t even seem aware of her husband’s habit. “Chet never, ever used drugs in front of me. Ever,” she insisted.
Born to Be Blue doesn’t just send us—as some bio films do—on a fast march, relentlessly to the end of his life all the while listing the well-known occurrences and events. Instead, it focuses on the period in the 1950s and 1960s when Baker became emblematic of what was known as “West Coast Jazz.” This was an anomaly because of the color of his skin, but he was embraced, if reluctantly, by jazz giants of the day like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
Born to Be Blue is carried by the performance of Ethan Hawke, and is acted with an understanding of Baker’s appeal, his demons and eventual unwillingness to fight those demons. Baker’s natural charm and charisma were treated as both a blessing and a curse, seemingly beyond his ability to completely control. The film has many of the elements familiar to music biopics, but it’s trying to do something different. It doesn’t always succeed, but the mere fact of the attempt is a welcome change.
As legend would have it, producer Dino De Laurentiis approached Chet Baker when he was in dire straits in Europe and expressed an interest in developing a film about Baker’s life, starring the trumpeter himself. De Laurentiis knew star quality when he saw it, and Baker had already appeared in a couple of films. De Laurentiis’ project never materialized, but 2015’s Born To Be Blue presents an alternate history where it did.
The film-within-a-film is set up immediately in the biopic. Baker is shown in glamorous, yet familiar black-and-white evocative of the look of footage from the famous folk and jazz festival documentaries of that era. By acting out stories from his own life, including his introduction to heroin and a nerve-wracking, but triumphant performance at Birdland, Baker is presented to us as if through a complete, unretouched portrait. These scenes are interrupted by backstage dramas, filmed to resemble the muted colors of old Polaroid photos, where Baker tries to get his music career back on track and connects romantically with his female co-star, an actress named Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo). Jane is a fictionalized composite of Halema and other various women in Baker’s life. Jane the actress is also portraying a fictionalized composite in the film-within-a-film.
The doubling down that this represents, the mirror-reflection of an unreal look at Baker’s very real,
and sometimes all too real life, adds to the sense that this film is interested in exploration, as opposed
to a mere presentation of biographical details. The film’s unique structure calls to mind a couple of
recent unconventional biopics—Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead with its delving into the persona of
and Bill Pohlad’s stylish Love & Mercy about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. The problem with these
and many biopics is that the focus is wrongly placed on the star’s personal foibles: drug use,
horrible relationships and arrests. The main reason for making a biopic in the first place
is because the person’s art is important, and many don’t address this.
With Born, it’s evident that Budreau cares about what Baker meant through his art. One of the best
sequences shows a small concert Baker gave in a recording studio, trying to reassert himself after
the loss of his teeth at the hands of the aforementioned associates under mysterious circumstances.
He sings “My Funny Valentine” with such a lonely, private ache that time seems to stand still. In
that sequence, even if you had never heard one of his songs, you can understand the obsession
Baker still generates. Hawke is a bit old to play the clean-cut heartthrob in the 1950s, but he brings
an almost terrifying sense of childlike susceptibility. Hawke also understands and displays the
sensitivity that one hears in Chet Baker’s singing voice, with its almost palpable romanticism, and
endless sorrow. Hawke’s startling openness—present from almost the very start of his career in
Dead Poets Society to later in Reality Bites—is weathered now, as his face looks somewhat ravaged
by worry. The wrinkle between his brows shows the anxiety of broken contracts with his younger self.
His aging, and the compelling argument it implies about the value of wasted (or not fully utilized)
youth, is unmistakable. His craggy face is mesmerizing—just look at it.
Carmen Ejogo gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance in a role that seems written for her. Their scenes together are filled with a rare vulnerability and communication. Her character has enough depth, and the talented Ejogo is not forced into the shallow role usually given to other women in similar films. By not locking her in as the nag, the wet blanket or long-suffering wife, Budreau has given Ejogo the room to develop a character arch in her performance.
The film-within-a-film disappears at some point along the way, and then Chet’s “reality” takes center stage. But the insertion of the film-within-a-film is a big disappointment; the device served the film as much as a “riff” does in jazz. In this case, a riff on narrative and persona, and a riff on the fact that one can’t really know the truth about anything. The device makes the distinction that what is happening onscreen is not necessarily factual, yet it is a stab at truth. But truth can be more important than mere fact. When the film-within-a-film is left behind, it does settle down into something more conventional, and then the biopic misses that electric charge of unreality. At one point in Born, Baker, who is now on methadone for heroin withdrawal, talks to Jane yearningly about what heroin provided for his trumpet-playing: “Time gets wider ... I can get inside every note.” It’s a great line.
The film isn’t perfect, and in a lot of ways it doesn’t accomplish what it set out to do. But if you’re going to tell a story about Chet Baker, you need to understand what he means by “ … get inside every note.” Born to Be Blue does just that.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.