I watched the movie Born to Be Blue this weekend, the stylish film depicting a specific period in the life of jazz trumpet great Chet Baker. Rather than try to chronicle the entirety of Baker’s life and career, the movie focuses on a brief period when the brilliant, yet tragic musician recovered from an altercation with his drug dealer that left his mouth damaged, prompting a period of rehabilitation of both his playing and his heroin addiction.
In the lead role, Ethan Hawke shines by capturing the nuances of Baker’s voice and singing style, one which conveys the intimacy and loneliness that defined Baker’s music and life. Hawke gives an indication of his approach to the performance in an interview with AOL. “If you get locked into an imitation, then you’re not emotionally connecting to the material yourself. The real dream is to tip your hat to the iconography of it – the look, the sound…but also bring a piece of yourself. Finding the voice for me was so important. There’s something so fragile about it.”
Hawke indicated that he used Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Johnny Cash as a roadmap. “He doesn’t really sound like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, but he embodies the mood and tone and experience of listening to Johnny Cash. If you put the albums side by side there’s no comparison – one’s Johnny Cash and one’s Joaquin Phoenix, but in the movie I was very moved (by the performance). He got inside the music in a way, and that’s what Robert (Budreau – Director) challenged me to do.”
In an equally compelling interview in the series called Hollywood Masters, Hawke revealed that he finds fascination in movies that are not focused on plot but rather those that capture the human experience, with the passage of “time” as the substitute for a clear storyline. Such an approach lends itself to a certain realism that’s missing in the “cookie-cutter” style of filmmaking. Certainly one of the most ambitious examples of such an effort came in the movie Boyhood, a 12 year effort where Hawke once again worked with his frequent collaborative partner, writer/director Richard Linklater.
The underlying message here as I perceive it from the movies and the interviews that I’ve watched is that everyone is looking for magic in life, but the magic is life itself. This brief scene from Boyhood, an exchange between Hawke as the father and his young son Mason captures the underlying sentiment of the film, and of Hawk’s outlook on filmmaking:
Dad? There’s no like… real magic in the world, right?
What do you mean?
You know, like elves and stuff. People just made that up.
Well, I don’t know. I mean what makes you thinks that, that elves are any more magical than something like…like a whale?
You know, I mean, what if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar, and sang songs, and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car? And you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you’d think that’s pretty magical, right?
Yeah. But like… right this second, there’s like no… elves in the world, right?
No. Technically no elves.