The words are uttered without apology in the plaintive tone of a stubborn little boy who insists on having everything his way.
Suffering from stage fright on the eve of his comeback late in this haunting film, he tearfully tries to explain the relationship between his addiction and playing his instrument. “It gives me confidence,” he explains in a husky whisper. “Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note.”
In Mr. Hawke’s extraordinary performance, this glamorous enigma becomes a credible, if pathetic character who lives for only two things: to play the trumpet and to shoot heroin. He likes sex, too, especially when he’s high.
The movie begins in the 1960s with a scene of Baker on the set of a screen biography that was never made, then flashes back to a 1954 performance attended by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis at Birdland, when Baker was the jazz world’s hottest sensation. Afterward he asks Davis (Kedar Brown) whether he liked it, and Davis scoffs in a gravelly voice, “It was sweet, like candy” and condescendingly advises him to come back when he has lived a little more.
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Out of earshot, Baker murmurs: “Hello, Dizzy, hello, Miles. There’s a little white cat on the West Coast gonna eat you up.”
In his singing and playing, Baker, who was called “the James Dean of jazz,” personified the West Coast style of cool jazz that was later echoed in the harmonies of the Beach Boys. His voice and trumpet expressed a cosmic languor shaded with romantic melancholy. East Coast bebop was more angular and staccato and emotionally volatile.
As the pieces of this portrait come together, the movie alternates between black-and-white and color. Baker emerges as a frightened, defiant, arrogant and entirely self-centered musician, who, by his own admission, excelled at only one thing. The rest of his life was a shambles.
Baker was forced to take a career break when drug dealers to whom he owed money knocked out his front teeth, and he had to relearn trumpet technique, wearing dentures that kept slipping. Scenes of Baker trying to play in an empty bathtub after the beating, blood streaming from the sides of his mouth, are agonizing to watch.
In a telling sequence, Baker visits his parents at their Oklahoma farm and has a poisonous confrontation with his jealous father (Stephen McHattie), a former musician himself, who sneers at his son for singing like a girl and accuses him of “dragging the family name through the mud.”
Because Baker was a beautiful young man (as seen in well-known photographs taken by William Claxton), he attracted no end of eager female caretakers. In an astute casting decision, the many women in his life are distilled into a single character, Jane, an aspiring actress, played by Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King from “Selma”), who brings remarkable vitality to this invented composite. The only other continuing character is Baker’s sympathetic producer, Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), who founded Pacific Jazz Records.
As for the music, the makers of “Born to Be Blue” made the risky decision not to use Baker’s original recordings. The jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte conjures Baker’s trumpet at different phases, including the period after he loses his teeth and is struggling to make any sound from the instrument. If Mr. Hawke does a reasonably good imitation of Baker’s plain, vibratoless voice singing “My Funny Valentine” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” he only fitfully captures the fragility embodied in that voice.
Baker’s glamour never completely faded. As seen in Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary, “Let’s Get Lost,” Baker, ravaged by his addiction, appeared wrapped in a narcotic haze. Even then, to some die-hard admirers, he remained an object of worship. The alluring mystique of the beautiful lost boy still clung to him, as it does today.
“Born To Be Blue” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
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