The image of a scorpion crawling out of a trumpet’s horn sets the tone for this Chet Baker bio-op. We know all will end badly, yet we are surprised by how moved we are. The flame-out jazz trumpeter tears at our hearts. We want this father of West Coast swing to conquer his demons so badly.
Most of this emotion is brought to bear because of the incredible acting of Ethan Hawke. I can not stress how much this actor draws us in to the soulful musician, the deluded junkie, the angry son, the insecure come-back kid, and the inventive lover. Hawke is amazing, a romantic tour de force, just jealous enough, just playful enough, just melancholy enough. Hawke does his own singing. With “My Little Valentine” stirring every listener’s breath, you consider Hawke a romantic lead for the first time. Part of this has to do with the dynamic chemistry between Carmen Ejogo and Hawke. Sex sizzles and notes soar.
Carmen Ejogo is Jane, the woman Baker adores. She is lovely and insightful and giving. Baker flirts with Jane, “Come back to my place and we can sing.” Ejogo lights up the screen with her knowing, “You are trouble.” Her glow at her trumpet-valve ring and her insistence on Baker “staying clean” says much about her character. She is no nonsense when she intones, “I don’t date zombies, Chet.” Whether bowling or walking the beach, or delivering her last lines: “Don’t be sorry for me!” , you will remember her in this film.
Director/writer Robert Budreau uses a unique color tool to keep the West Coast and the East Coast scenes orderly. All Pacific scenes are in color while all Atlantic scenes are shot in black and white. Close shots are perfectly alternated with long shots. Visually, this is a treat. We enjoy the facial muscles and the shaded eyes more once we see waves dashing a shoreline or light at a tunnel’s end. Head shots don’t get claustrophobic.
While the cinematography is lovely, even the bloodied face of an assaulted Baker is artful, it is the music that permeates our psyches. Hawke’s slicked-back hair, his finger placement on the keys, the strong cords of his neck, even his missing teeth pay homage to his talent, but the mixture of song and story had theater goers sitting in their seats to read the last song title credited.
Three other characters round out the Chet Baker story. His parole officer is played by Canadian actor Tony Nappo. As Officer Reid he has twenty-five years of experience working with musician addicts. Portrayed with humor and caring, Reid both winces and laughs at Chet’s accusation: ” It is people like you who killed Billy Holliday!” He counters with, “Try to be happy for more than ten minutes.” They “get “methadone, and they “get” each other. Reid delivers one of the film’s most homiletic lines: ” If a man sits in a barber shop long enough, he is going to get a haircut.”
Dick, Chet’s manager, is played just as successfully by Callum Keith Rennie. Tough love and moist, joyful eyes show up again when Chet’s hard work earns Baker a gig at “Birdland”. Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie sit in here and add tribute to the junkie jazz man. Even though Miles’ earlier putdown lingers:” Go back to the beach, man. Come back when you have lived a little.”
The third significant man in Baker’s life may be his dealer, but we don’t meet him. The story arc encompasses just the early to mid-to-late sixties. We do get a glimpse at Chet’s father, a curmudgeon of an Oklahoman, who farms sarcasm as well as he farms pigs. Calling his son a diminutive “Chetty”, he asks “Why did you have to sing like a girl?” ” Why drag the Baker name through the mud (with your drugs) ?” Though Mr. Baker has contributed to his son’s love of music , we get glimpses of a very lonely childhood. His rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” we see as having true emotional roots.
Be ready for some extreme violence and lyrics that tear at your heart. Chet Baker is seen here as a fragile man, soft-spoken and vulnerable. I don’t believe it is true that he never hurt anyone, but himself. There were a lot of filmgoers who felt pummeled at his ” forgive this helpless haze I’m in”. Only Chet Baker was born to be blue. Need I say: Do not miss.