Born to Be Blue

Born to Be Blue

Born to Be Blue is a biopic about jazz great Chet Baker, starring Ethan Hawke.

I enjoy jazz, but my background knowledge of it is spotty. Many years back I obtained one of those lists of the “essential” jazz artists and albums that any true jazz fan should be familiar with (and similar lists for blues and classical), and each year I pick up another 3-7 albums (actually CDs) at random from the list. In this way my jazz collection has gradually grown to be quite extensive. However, it’s hit or miss whether I’ll have a given famous album, or for that matter any album by a given famous jazz great.

As it happens, the random additions to my collection have not yet included anything by Chet Baker. So prior to seeing Born to Be Blue, I was not familiar with him. I had heard the name, and I knew he was a jazz musician, but I don’t know that I even would have been able to identify what instrument he played. (Trumpet.)

The movie intrigued me enough that after seeing it I spent some time online learning more about Baker. I read the Wikipedia entry on him and a few other things, looked up some YouTube videos of him performing, etc.

I definitely like his music now that I’ve gotten some limited exposure to it, and I also think that his was a quite interesting and thought-provoking life, one that is worthy of having a film made about it.

Baker was the embodiment of California cool jazz in the ’50s, achieving great popularity at a young age. He was also considered quite the ladies’ man, a suave sex symbol.

Which is interesting, since he was actually an Oklahoma farm boy, and frankly looked like the quintessential hayseed, complete with missing teeth. But it just goes to show that sexual attractiveness isn’t some sort of static anatomical characteristic but is an emergent quality based on the whole package that a person brings to the table—looks, money, fame, personality, talent, machismo, etc., and above all an indefinable kind of charisma. If you just look at pictures of him, Baker seems far from handsome (in pictures from his later years, he looks especially rough, and far, far older than he really was, which is not surprising given the life he led—more on that below), but he had that charisma in spades.

Almost every time I write about a supposedly nonfiction movie, I note my pet peeve that virtually all of them are in fact heavily fictionalized. Born to Be Blue is no exception. It is “based on” Baker’s life, but evidently the film allows itself a great deal of poetic license in telling the story of that life, including creating a single composite character to represent multiple of the romantic interests in Baker’s life.

I don’t like that and I assume I’ll never like that, but I tolerate it because I know it’s the convention and I know my complaining about it isn’t going to change it. (I do have my limits though. From what I’ve read of it, this Don Cheadle movie about Miles Davis—Miles Ahead—goes to a far greater extreme than most in completely making stuff up, so I refuse to see it.)

So as usual in these situations, what I have to say is sort of about Baker and sort of about the Baker character in this movie who’s not really Baker.

Mostly Born to Be Blue is quite good, but there are times it gets a little weak, a little simplistic. For example, one of the movie’s themes is that Baker was obsessed with proving himself to the (black) jazz greats of the world, who were inclined to dismiss him as an overrated white boy looking to appropriate their music, like Pat Boone singing Little Richard. Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis are used to represent the jazz resistance to Baker, with Davis especially being rude and condescending to him.

In real life, Baker had already been picked to play with the great Charlie Parker, and had received all kinds of honors and accolades from traditional jazz folks well before any such confrontations with Gillespie and Davis took place, so he had already to a large extent been accepted as a member of the jazz elite. I’m not saying Davis and maybe others never gave him a hard time, nor that he never felt a need to win over some jazz superstars who were slow to acknowledge his talent, but I suspect the film is exaggerating and over-simplifying by making it all about these dramatic Baker Birdland gigs, with Gillespie and Davis watching intently from the audience, waiting for an opportunity to cut him to shreds in Simon Cowell fashion if he doesn’t meet their standards.

But the main theme of the film is Baker’s nearly lifelong struggle with heroin addiction.

Born to Be Blue focuses primarily on the period of Baker’s life in the ’60s when he has seemingly hit rock bottom and is having to slowly attempt to rebuild his career and his life. In the fight between Chet Baker and heroin, if heroin hasn’t scored an early knockout at the very least it has built up a big lead on points.

Among Baker’s many problems is that he is coming off a severe beating that knocked out a bunch of his teeth and smashed up his mouth and face so badly that even if he can somehow straighten his life out and get off the drugs he’s no longer physically able to play the trumpet anyway. (In the movie, he is attacked for having failed to pay back money he borrowed for drugs. In real life, he claimed he was beaten by a band of muggers seeking to rob him. Most people say he was likely beaten when he ventured into a bad area to buy drugs and either ended up in a dispute with drug dealers or was tricked by hoodlums posing as drug dealers pretending they had what he wanted.)

Meanwhile, he has a parole officer constantly looking over his shoulder, ready to send him off to prison at the first sign he has fallen off the wagon. (I know that expression refers to alcoholism, but I’m assuming it can be applied to drugs too.)

But he digs deep and gets back in the fight. Heroin is still a formidable opponent, but it is no longer a foregone conclusion that it will defeat him, not if he can somehow sustain the heroic effort he’s making.

Part of that effort is relearning how to play the trumpet after the injuries he suffered. In a scene that’s painful to watch, he’s shown lying back in his bathtub, trumpet to his lips, forcing himself to practice as blood pours out of his damaged mouth. Later, attempting to record a studio album, he’s clearly in severe pain playing his instrument, and multiple times has to stop.

It’s fascinating to watch his struggle. The movie in no way downplays (nor, I suspect, does it exaggerate) just how extraordinarily difficult it can be to free yourself from a heroin addiction when you’re truly hooked. I certainly got caught up in the drama of his ups and downs, wanting to find out whether in the end heroin would claim another victim or Baker would prove to be one of the few with the strength to defeat the addiction.

But one of the things I most appreciate about Born to Be Blue is that by the end of the film you realize there’s another possibility. Maybe he’s not morally obligated to do anything and everything in his power to get off heroin. Maybe ruining his life or keeping away from heroin aren’t, or shouldn’t be, his only choices. Maybe being a heroin user is not incompatible with having a worthwhile life.

I’m not saying I believe that his best option is to give up the fight and at least sometimes use heroin, only that it’s worth considering that possibility, questioning the dogma that such a thing can never be the best option.

As an explanation of why he takes heroin, at one point Baker notes simply that he enjoys it. Obviously it isn’t automatically right to do something just because you derive some sort of pleasure from it, but surely enjoyment has to count for something when weighing the pros and cons. As Champion Jack Dupree sings, “They call me a junker ’cause I’m loaded all the time. But that don’t mean nothin’ if I feel good all the time.”

When a disapproving remark is made about his mentor Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction, Baker responds that Parker was only hurting himself (and thus so is he).

Again, taken by itself this is far from a conclusive defense. The inevitable rejoinder to such a claim is that when people hurt themselves—through addiction or otherwise—they do indeed also hurt others. They cause pain and grief to the people that care about them. They deprive the world of the contributions they could have made if they’d taken care of themselves. In the case of drugs, they also frequently directly harm others through related activities such as stealing to get drug money or driving while under the influence.

But the fact that at least most of the harm is to themselves and only indirectly to others remains a mitigating point. Morality and the law routinely make distinctions between direct and indirect harm, where all else being equal direct harm is significantly worse. If I cause you emotional distress by stalking you, I can be held legally liable; if I cause you emotional distress by refusing to convert to your religion, I cannot.

But then it turns out that his using heroin has a further benefit for him, and arguably for others. By boosting his confidence, improving his focus, and lessening any stage fright, using heroin enables him to be a better musician—or at least he’s convinced it does.

You can say that he’s fooling himself, that surely like the characters in the Wizard of Oz whatever strength he thinks the heroin gives him was always inside him available to be accessed, but can we know that for sure? What if that really is the tradeoff: We can have Chet Baker the jazz superstar who uses heroin, or Chet Baker the very good jazz man who doesn’t?

Note also how much of the harm from drugs comes precisely from its forbidden nature. People have to steal to support their habit (in part) because it’s illegal and artificially expensive. People involved in dealing it routinely get involved in other criminal activity (in part) because they are already doing something illegal. Relationships break up over it (in part) because non-users condemn users harshly and treat their drug use as a dealbreaker. Users feel like evil or weak losers (in part) because society has drummed into their head what a terrible thing they’re doing.

Let me be clear, I make all these points not out of a pro-drugs bias. In fact if I were to approach the issue with a bias at all it would be in the other direction, as I have been strongly anti-drugs my whole life. I don’t do drugs, and have never done drugs. I don’t even drink. I’ve had problems with people in my life (mostly when I was much younger) because I made no secret of my opposing their drug use. I think in general it’s an idiotic, self-destructive thing to do.

I intend these points more in a devil’s advocate sense, to show that even with something as extreme as heroin addiction, it’s not a totally one-sided case.

I’m inclined to say that when you add up all the factors, Baker’s excruciating struggle to get off and stay off heroin was probably not misguided. It’s just that I and probably most viewers spend most if not all of the movie not even realizing that that is a question, because we’re so caught up in rooting for him to win that struggle.

One final point, and maybe the most important of all: Who should decide? Even if taking into account all the relevant factors I still come down on the anti-drug side and believe that heroin use is a stupid choice, what follows from that? Shouldn’t Baker be the one to decide for Baker, without artificially tipping the scales with coercion and thereby adding costs to one of the choices? Shouldn’t he be the one to decide whether he wants to party hard to enjoy his youth in exchange for shortening his life or diminishing the quality of his life when he’s older, whether to spend a certain amount of his earnings on heroin rather than something else, how highly to value the way heroin relaxes him and puts him in just the right uninhibited state of mind to be able to truly excel on the trumpet before his rivals at Birdland, etc.?

Because in the end, he never fully escaped from the grip of heroin. As I read online after seeing the movie, he spent most of the last decades of his life in Europe, using heroin off and on in countries with more tolerance for that kind of thing, continuing to pursue a successful career as a jazz musician, performing with the likes of Elvis Costello and Stan Getz.

Was he better off—was the world better off—that way than if he had continued the fight against heroin just a little bit longer and harder and permanently overcome his addiction? I don’t know. Probably not; he was pretty much of a mess for much of his life. But maybe that was for him to decide.

But aren’t we under a moral obligation to throw our weight on the side we believe is right when it comes to other people’s behavior? Aren’t we in part contributing to people’s self-destructiveness if we don’t actively oppose something like their heroin addiction?

When you think about it though, at least in this case people did everything they could, coercively and non-coercively, to get him off drugs and he still died an addict. His family, friends, lovers, people in the music industry, etc. all berated him about his heroin use. People ended relationships with him to show they wouldn’t tolerate what he was doing. Most importantly, the law in the person of the parole officer always looming over him threatened him with harsh punishment—loss of freedom in the hell that is the U.S. prison system—if he returned to drugs. And still he failed to permanently give up heroin.

So it turned out it wasn’t a choice between getting him off drugs or respecting his autonomy in libertarian fashion. Instead they got the worst of both worlds: they hounded the man and did all they could to make his life worse if he returned to using heroin, and yet they never fully got him off the drug.

As I’ve said in other writings, as stupid and destructive as I think recreational drug use is, I’m inclined to say the Drug War tops it in terms of stupidity and destructiveness.

I don’t know for sure what I would do if someone I cared about had a serious drug habit that was adversely affecting their life. Certainly I would help them if they themselves made the choice to try to get off the drug. If they did not, I suspect I would still attempt to influence them in that direction non-coercively, perhaps even to the point of pulling out of a relationship with them if they did not change. But it’s very unlikely I would advocate trying to coerce them away from the drug. In the end, it still has to be up to them—not me and not politicians, cops, and jailers—to make their own life choices.

So this is what I most valued about Born to Be Blue: It brought me face to face with how terrible the struggle against heroin addiction can be, and it provoked me to think about the wisdom of how we influence that struggle and its costs and benefits.

One final thing I wanted to note: Ethan Hawke is terrific in this movie. A wonderful, convincing portrayal of a complex, supremely talented, and in some ways cursed human being.

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