I recently rewatched Born to Be Blue, the stylish biopic about the turbulent life of My Funny Valentine trumpeter Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke in the film. In it, Miles Davis tells the horn player, “You haven’t lived enough” to be a great musician.
That line always sticks out to me, the idea that art only comes with suffering and hard work. I remember Bruce Springsteen telling Marc Maron how he embraced the chaos to make his music. “People don’t generally end up in my circumstance who had placid, loving, happy fulfilled lives. It’s not how you become a rock and roll star. You gotta have some chaos, tumult, disastrous relationships, humiliation at a young age, feel disempowered, an enormous amount of weakness and suddenly start to burn, burn, burn. When that burning starts, if you take that flame and aim it toward the right thing, it’s a powerful weapon.”
With that in mind I dug up the conversation I had with Hawke when the movie came out.
When I asked Hawke if great art can be created without life experience, he said, “My take is that there are no rules, but you don’t become Nelson Mandela without suffering. There is a huge myth around Mozart that he was just divinely inspired, in truth he worked really hard. He was obsessed with music from a very young age.
“You could make the case that Michael Jackson suffered immensely and that is part of what drove him. I think the service of the artistic community is to translate our lives back to us and hopefully to lend some understanding. You need to participate in life and feel life to be able to do that. But you know lots of people suffer without a gift or talent to translate it into a beautiful painting.”
Baker took Davis’s comment to heart and set off on a life long self-destructive bender that saw him fall into drug addiction, even pawning his instruments to support his drug habit.
“In the arts, self destruction is a real enemy,” Hawke says. “If you eliminate self-destruction, if you get out of your own way, give yourself permission to have respect for yourself and treat yourself like someone that you love, your chances of success quadruple. That’s really hard.
“It sounds so simple. The documentary I made [Seymour: An Introduction] is all about how hard that is. The joys of life are actually really simple. We think they are going to be, ‘Oh I’ll be happy if this, that and the other thing [happen].’ In truth it is pretty awesome that the sun comes up and if you stay focussed on that things go OK. As soon as you take your eye off that, life gets really weird and tricky.”
Hawke shares Baker’s rough-hewn good looks and does a convincing job of imitating the fragile beauty of his singing voice. More importantly he apes the addict’s temperament. Charming one minute, petulant and or incoherent the next, he plays Baker as a talented train wreck; a man whose tragic life experience fed his art. Unsure which of his proclivities are his angels and which are his devils, he’s a conflicted guy who tries to do well by those around him but often fails. Hawke may resemble the musician but the similarity is only physical. He is comfortable in his skin in a way Baker never dreamed of.
“It’s strange, I’m turning forty-five this year,” he says, “and I have been professionally acting for thirty years. When I was young I was really afraid that I wouldn’t get to do it. That was a big part of my identity as a young person. Even if a movie did well that I would think, ‘Is it over?’ Will I ever get to do it again? It’s how I imagine baseball players and professional athletes feel. Do they ever really know when their last game is? With acting, I’m working on my King Lear now. I’ll be able to do this until I am old no use to people anymore. In athletics it’s not that way.”