Born To Be Blue, out in theatres today, is not your average biopic. The film, which stars Ethan Hawke as famous jazz musician Chet Baker and Carmen Ejogo as a fictional love interest, is what the soundtrack's composer David Braid calls “historical fiction.” Pinnacle moments from Baker’s life are used, but more as jumping-off points rather than strict time stamps on the trumpet player’s timeline.
The result gives a great nod to Baker, but if audiences want a straightforward retelling of his life, then they’re not going to get it here. While some of Baker’s most well-known pieces such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “My Funny Valentine” do make an appearance in the film, Toronto jazz musician and University of Toronto alumnus Braid was brought on to interpret his works in order to fit the movie’s narrative, as well as create new works to score the film.
CBC Music sat down with Braid to talk about his work on the film, working with Hawke and Ejogo onset and what he thinks about accurately portraying jazz music in film.
How did you first get involved with this project?
Well, the director, Robert Budreau, had read a piece about me in the Globe and Mail and came down to hear me play in Toronto years ago. After the show, we shook hands and he asked if I wanted to collaborate on a short film project sometime - shortly after that, we worked on two short films for Bravo called Dream Recording and Photographic Fate.
About five years ago, he got in touch again about a new project. He said, “I’ve got this Chet Baker film that’s in the works and I would really like you to be involved.” So, of course, I said yes because I enjoyed working with Rob and the musical content was obviously excellent, and highly relevant to me.
So I take it you were a fan of Chet Baker then.
Certainly. This is just pure coincidence, but the first CD I ever owned was a Chet Baker compilation album called "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." There was kind of a stylish thing about him on the cover that just made me want to buy the album. His music is very lyrical and I think, still to this day, it has impacted me as a musician. I approach jazz improvisation much more on the lyrical side and that probably comes from my early connection with Chet.
What was the process like, creating the music for the film?
The music came in two stages. Once we decided on a set of pieces suitable to the storyline, I researched Chet Baker’s style in more detail so I could recreate an essence of it when I orchestrated the songs. The onscreen performances also had to fit the storyline so that’s why no original Chet Baker music was used - perfect studio trumpet playing was not part of the story.
Imperfect trumpet playing was actually a big part of the story so I had to sort out how to communicate this without making the music feel uncomfortable to the audience watching the film. This isn’t easy to do if you think about it because you can’t have a trumpet player squawking on the screen for too long; it’s just not pleasant. However, if I made the errors too subtle, a general audience might not pick it up.
Was this first stage done before the film started shooting?
Yes, it’s not so typical but we did all the jazz recording before they even shot any picture so this way, the actual soundtrack is playing while the actors were performing on set. That just makes sense. If the music was written after the picture, we would’ve had to compromise the performances to fit certain timings. Plus the syncing with actors would be nearly impossible. The final cut still had some final music editing — which I wasn’t entirely happy about — but that’s the nature of composing for film.
What was the next stage?
The second stage was writing a bit of the score for the film. There were also two other composers who contributed more traditional film score material. The film scoring part was quite enjoyable for me, first, because it was something I hadn’t done much of before, but I got to use more creative skills in the recording studio such as improvising to picture.
Also, probably the most enjoyable part for me was writing some works for string orchestra and jazz ensemble. There were a lot of all-nighters during that period because the inclusion of string music was a last minute decision. I finished the music 20 minutes before the recording session.
Do you have a favourite piece from the film?
The final and climactic performance in the film is definitely my favourite. I had just finished playing Rhapsody in Blue in China when I got an email from the director asking me when I’d be back to arrange and record a new piece. I used my jetlag to remain alert all night creating the new arrangement in my hotel room. I didn’t have a piano in my room so I was just singing the lines and writing things out quickly. I literally got off the plane from China, went straight to the studio and we recorded “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Ethan does a marvelous job singing on this, as does Kevin Turcotte, the trumpet player representing Chet throughout the film.
The original version, from Guys & Dolls, is very lighthearted and is a reflection on newfound love, but in the context of Born to be Blue, the lyrics communicate darkness and the words have the completely different meaning. I gave the harmony a treatment to reflect this darkness. It was also the last musical element where I could touch the audience before the film closed so I added a slight contemporary feel to the harmony so it might connect with a contemporary audience even more.
Was that an important element you wanted to add to the music in this film, a contemporary feel?
The director and producers were so cool and really knew how to stay out of the way in terms of the jazz music creative process. They told me only what I needed to know, then let me and the other musicians work it out. I appreciated their trust and collaborative spirit very much. This allowed me to recreate the spirit of Chet's music to express the story, yet I could decide to modify certain feature songs to connect more with a contemporary audience. The final song of the piece is a good example of this, as is the composition for strings which plays during a California beach scene.
What elements did you extract from Chet’s music to use in your own compositions?
His music has some very identifiable qualities – lyricism, romanticism, simplicity – these qualities were used in abundance in the compositions I wrote for string orchestra in the film. Most of all, a strong emphasis on melody informs all of my writing.
How was it working with the actors performing onscreen?
In Ethan’s case, he wanted video of the trumpet player, Kevin Turcotte, recording in the studio so he could study and mime it. He also was taking trumpet lessons so he could really get inside the physical part of playing the instrument.
Carmen Ejogo, who played Jane in the movie, she came over a piano lesson. I composed a piano piece for her to play, thinking it would look believable onscreen but also learnable. Carmen was amazingly quick at learning her piano part.
To the credit of the producers, they really wanted to make the visual of the performances on screen appear authentic. A lot of movies can fail in this regard. But all things considered, Born to Be Blue’s onscreen musical performances look very believable - it’s pretty convincing, which I think is great.
What did you think of the accuracy of performing jazz music in a film like Whiplash?
You know, I think Whiplash is very successful as a dramatic film but as a representation of jazz education, it’s quite ridiculous actually. I went through a jazz education program so I couldn’t get through the film… I couldn’t separate my own experience and just appreciate it for the drama.
So how was it for you to watch the final product of Born to be Blue?
I’ve never done a film project on this kind of scale before so it wasn’t until I saw the film on the big screen with the big sound that the magnitude of the whole project hit me. Ethan and Carmen are mesmerizing, it’s beautifully shot, the screenplay is really touching and I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think the music is quite engaging! I was really proud when I saw the whole thing put together.