Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 37 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.
2 Corinthians 4:16-17 (The Message)
Director/writer Robert Budreau’s highly fictionalized take on West Coast jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) shows that, like the apostle Paul, Baker never gives up. Not even when thugs knock out his front teeth because he has failed to pay his drug debts. In shot after shot through, the ups and downs of his career, we see him practicing on his trumpet, in dozens of rooms, outdoors by the seaside, and even in a cornfield while visiting his Oklahoma parents. Initially the mouthpiece of his trumpet makes his damaged gums and mouth bleed until his undershirt is soaked in blood, but he goes back to his trumpet every time until at last his wound has healed enough that his chin and undershirt no longer turn red. He practices and practices to reach his old level of expertise. In one irony-filled scene he manages to secure a berth with a small band at a low level bar. After the gig the white leader, unaware of his past, tells him he should “practice more.” This to the trumpet player who, before his beating, had been worshipped by thousands of fans and praised by none other than Charlie “The Bird” Parker!
Beginning in an Italian jail cell due to his drug-possession arrest while he traveling through Europe, the film takes us on the journey of an outsider struggling against a host of difficulties that would have defeated most men. Baker’s addiction to heroin might have been overcome, but not the color of his skin—he was a white man competing in a black man’s world, that of jazz, and thus scorned by some whom he idolized, such as Miles Davis (Kedar Brown). What a reversal of the usual bio plot in which black musicians face racism that stands in the their way for success—see Taylor Hackford’s 2004 film Ray or Robert Townsend’s excellent 1991 The Five Heartbeats.
A Hollywood filmmaker bails Baker out of that Italian jail because he wants to make a film based on the trumpeter’s life, but because Baker had little acting talent, and even more, because of the incident of the thugs busting his teeth, the film never is finished. (Indeed, in real life, it never even entered production, but here, as in many other places, Budreau is not as interested in Baker’s actual life as he is in making a good jazz film, facts be damned.)
Carmen Ejogo plays a composite of the actress in the movie-within-a-movie and of Baker’s three wives and numerous girl friends, most of whom helped him during those heroin afflicted days when he could not help himself. First we see her as Jane Azuka in the fictional movie making sequence, the actress portraying his wife, and then as Elaine, the woman who remains loyal through thick and thin, yet who cannot always be with him because of his heroin addiction.
Much of the film consists of black and white flashbacks, including the one of his early days of success when he had been discovered and promoted by the great Charlie “Bird” Parker, who paved the way for him to play at the jazz Mecca, New York City’s Birdland. There at a table far to the back Miles Davis and friends skeptically watch his performance. To Baker’s deep disappointment, Davis tells him he is not ready for Birdland. Thinking that the interloper had been raised in a cushy white man’s world, he tells him that he has not lived enough yet to play real jazz.
Virtually every jazz man played his way out of great suffering caused by the opression of poverty and racism. What Davis did not know was that Baker also arose out of poverty and had to struggle against his father’s scorn that he could not become a real musician because of his ruined teeth. The latter we see in the sequence when the broke Baker and Eileen lodge with his parents on their Oklahoma farm. Mr. Baker himself had failed to become a musician, whicso there might also be a touch of jealousy in his put downs of his son.
Ethan Hawke is marvelous as the addicted musician making great music despite his bouts with heroin. The actor deserves the praise being heaped upon him. Mr. Hawke appears to have taken trumpet lessons, because though the music is Baker’s, the fingering and puffy cheeks are Hawke’s—he makes us believe he is the one making the music. And what music, heard throughout the film—including Baker’s haunting versions of old favorites, “Over The Rainbow” and “My Funny Valentine,” among many others. (Hawke does sing the words to the latter, to the accompaniment of The David Braid Quartet.)
To thoroughly appreciate this film it is important that we go with Robert Budreau’s conceit of making a film inspired by Chet Baker, rather than a film biography. There is never any mention of the real Baker’s four children; his two stints in the Army (he played in the Army Band); his brief college career; his acting in a film that did get made, Hell’s Horizons; and more. The film ends just prior to the jazz man’s self exile to Europe, the remaining years of his life summed up in a series of short end credits.
The story of the tortured artist is an old Hollywood trope, but Mr. Budreau’s film based on the life of “The James Dean of jazz” is one you will long remember, a rewarding tribute to the perseverance of the human spirit. With his painfully battered mouth the musician could have given up, but he didn’t. And even though he could not win over heroin, he still was able to make his mark in the one world in the 50’s and 60’s in which his white skin was a drawback rather than an asset. He is generally credited with being the leading proponent of the cooler music called West Coast Jazz.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of Visual Parables.