If there was ever any doubt about Ethan Hawke’s ability to act, its gone by the time you watch Born to Be Blue, a biopic about Chet Baker’s life and career, courtesy of Québecois director Robert Budreau. Whenever you have the looks or the charisma, people tend to take your acting skills for granted, but Hawke genuinely is a great actor.
Born to Be Blue has him playing Baker, the famous jazz trumpeter who was compared, back in the day, to being a “James Dean for jazz.” It was a heavy duty comparison, and Baker definitely couldn’t handle it all.
Hawke explains it this way, “Chet Baker fascinated me because he was a man full of contradictions. He grew up in a farm in California, he became the James Dean of Jazz in California, he sang beautiful love songs. He also had some major personal issues. It’s the music he created that attracts you to the man and his life.”
The movie showcases the usual tropes of such bio pics: alcoholism, drugs, womanizing. The difference here is that Budreau really twists the narrative around and has Baker starring in a movie about himself, playing himself and reconstructing the key moments of his life.
“I quickly learned that Robert Budreau wanted to make the same movie as I envisioned,” Hawke tells me, sitting on a couch in his hotel lobby. “It’s so easy to fall into the same, tired cliches.”
The film set footage is mixed with Baker off set, struggling with his demons. The lines between reality and fiction blur at some point, but it’s all part of the thrill of watching this fascinating movie.
“Chet never lied when he sang. There was something very honest about him,” Hawke said. “If I had played Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald or any big voice of Jazz, it would have been much more difficult to pull off, but with Chet what’s most touching is his voice, it’s the cool energy that you feel when he sings.”
The same can be said of the movie, which tries to be an honest portrayal of the legendary Jazz artist, a man whose soft, yearningly soulful singing voice could encapsulate many feelings through the whisper of a note.
We spoke to Hawke last September at The Toronto Film Festival about the movie.
TYF: Do you think addiction helps or hurts artists’ creativity?
Ethan Hawke: Speaking directly about Chet Baker, what he really wanted was what he considered a jazz life – he wanted to do drugs and play music. He liked that more than his relationship with his friends and family and that’s kind of what he wanted to do. In truth, the habit in us talks very loudly and it’s very hard to hear your own voice. Anybody that’s tried to quit smoking, it’s like there’s a little demon, and one of the demons for a lot of people is their own self-worth. I don’t believe that the drugs helped Chet Baker play, I believe that he believed they did.
In sports we see this as cheating, in music we sometimes see it as the essence of the creative process
Well, in sports there are rules. Lance Armstrong cheated because they have a race where you’re not allowed drugs.
First of all, I don’t think drugs enhance anybody’s performance anyway in the arts, while in sports obviously they do. Peter O’Toole thinks he’s a better actor when he’s shitfaced drunk, but he’s not. Unfortunately he developed a habit where his anxiety is so loud that he can’t perform without it. I had a friend who directed Elizabeth Taylor and he said she had this opinion that she was better when she was drunk. She wasn’t, it’s just that she was less nervous. And she enjoyed it more drunk.
Do you think there’s a romanticism about suffering for one’s art
I think people think that. I think that society tries to homogenize all of us and through pain, sometimes you see the fakeness of culture. That’s why so many great artists have been homosexual, that’s why there have been so many great black artists. Through immense suffering you can see what’s fake and you can talk back to the culture.
That leads to the notion of authenticity. One of the challenges Chet had was he was part of the dominant culture, entering in to a subculture where he was a minority and his self-consciousness of that fact. Even Chet would think this would be better told as Miles’s story.
Chet won jazz trumpeter of the year or something from Downbeat Magazine or something like that, and he told Miles that he wanted to write a letter of apology to Davis, to Cliff Brown and I guess Louie Armstrong or something. Miles said, “Why would you stop there? The list of people better than you is so long.” When they were playing together in a club somebody put a Chet Baker record on in the jukebox and Miles wouldn’t play unless they opened the jukebox, took the record out, and broke it.
So why do we care about Chet if musically as you say, people like Miles are conceivably superior – what is it about Chet’s personage and his art?
Because superior in the arts is a ridiculous word actually, because really whether he’s better, he had something original to say too. They both did. Miles is definitely better, but I put on more Chet Baker records myself, because I’m moved by them. That’s the thing about Chet’s singing, is that it’s not good, but it is moving.
Moving because it’s authentic?
Because it has real emotion and it has some truth to it. Yeah, authentic. Chet Baker can really only do one thing, but he could do it brilliantly.
How hard is it to bring to screen that ephemeral notion of music, the subtlety of it all?
All I could really do is bring a love of it. When I was doing my trumpet lessons I just wanted more time. I wanted to push shooting and had all of this stuff I wanted to do. This guy who was my teacher was like, listen, if we had three years, you wouldn’t be close.
You know, when Willie Nelson plays the guitar, it’s different. There are millions of guitars all over the world, this one guy picks it up and he can do something you can recognize, it has a voice. Chet Baker had that with the trumpet, and so did Miles Davis, obviously. That’s so unique and so beautiful, but I can’t do that. Will Smith can’t box like Muhammad Ali, but he can play the love of boxing. I can play the love of trumpet, and I can communicate the feeling that there was one avenue where this guy put all of his love, all of his humanity, and he couldn’t get out and reach his family and other people. I have known that in my life.