Troubled and talented musicians are a popular subject when it comes to biographical dramas. The tropes behind the retelling of an artist’s entire life have become so standard that even Hollywood spoofed them with the excellent Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007).
The Dutch director Rolf van Eijk’s exploration of the American jazz musician Chet Baker, however, is no laughing matter.
My Foolish Heart, van Eijk’s first feature film, offers a different take on the biopic genre. Not only does the movie differ wildy from the musician’s portrait that Ethan Hawke and director Robert Budreau established with Born to Be Blue (2015), but it also takes a more experimental path of exploring the effects a figure like Baker had on the people, and even the city, surrounding him.
The movie is set in Amsterdam, 1988, where a detective is charged with investigating the mysterious death of Baker, who was found on a street after falling from the balcony of a hotel.
From that point on, van Eijk, who co-wrote the script with Roelof Jan Minneboo, reconstructs the final hours of Baker’s life while the musician drowns himself in jazz, drugs, lost loves and the dark sides of Amsterdam’s streets.
Behind the face of the talented jazz player and singer is another musician: Steve Wall. The Irish artist and actor gets completely lost in the role as he plays the many sides of Baker: the charismatic and romantic crooner, but also the egocentric and selfish addict. It’s truly an astounding role for Wall, whose next role in Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground will screen at the Sundance Film Festival.
During the Geneva International Film Festival, the actor and director sat down with Vague Visages to talk about the challenges of bringing another side of Baker’s life to the screen while also attempting to make an intriguing mystery film.
Why did you choose Chet Baker as the subject of your first feature film, My Foolish Heart?
RVE: I’ve been a Chet Baker fan since my early twenties. Before that, I didn’t listen to jazz, but I moved to Amsterdam. And in my street, in Central Amsterdam, there was a jazz café, so I was listening to jazz from that start and really starting to love and appreciate it. Then Chet Baker came along, and I fell in love with his unique tone of voice and vulnerability — also, of course, the way his trumpets sounds. At that time, my girlfriend broke up with me, and I was with her for six years, so Chet’s music really helped me with the pain of lost love. Instead of making me angry, it softened me and helped me put aside my ego. I really started to get interested in the person behind the music and started to research him. I found out there was two sides of him. His “podium appearance,” with him on stage being very vulnerable and small, and behind the stage, in his private life, where he wasn’t that much of a romantic man. He was very manipulative, egocentric, and I found out he was not able to really truly engage with true love. But he can sing about it.
Born To Be Blue, another recent Chet Baker film led by Ethan Hawke, was released a couple of years ago. But instead of focusing on Baker’s prime years, you decided to tell the tale of his final hours before dying.
RVE: I was triggered by the fact that he was adored worldwide by millions. Women, men loved him. He was beautiful in his younger years, like James Dean. In Italy, they called him “The Angel.” But he died alone on the sidewalk of a dirty street in the Red Light district of Amsterdam. That’s, of course, cinematically beautiful, in a way. I wanted to research his character and psychology and put it into a film.
How did you find the musician Steve Wall to play the part of Chet Baker?
RVE: The process was as it always is: with a casting agent and contacts abroad. We were looking all over Europe and also in the United States. All of the casting agents put a lot of effort on pushing their actors, pushing them forward to us because it’s a very challenging role. There was one tape coming from Dublin, Ireland. I press play and there was Steve. I remember very well that I saw the first seconds of this tape and immediately felt that this guy really did his homework and transformed into Chet Baker.
Steve, how did you master Baker’s voice so early in the process? Your real voice is pretty much lower.
SW: When I got the call for doing this, I knew I wanted to do a really good job. While I was at home in Dublin, I listened to all of his music all day long, took the dog for walks listening to his interviews on YouTube, and I noticed that he sounded like he had a cold. So, I was also trying to speak up there [changes the tone of his voice]. It ended up sounding like my nose was blocked. I also noted how incredible his breathing was. I would’ve been lost without YouTube. It’s an incredible tool to find out this stuff.
How did you work on the physicality of the role? Baker is portrayed as a tall man and well built. But at that point in his life, his body is devastated by drugs, a broken heart and poverty.
SW: The prosthetic make-up was a huge part of it. I was over there in Amsterdam a week before we started shooting for testing the prosthetics. In the beginning, it was too thick, and I looked like Frankenstein. Then they brought it down thinner and thinner. And by the end, it started to look very good. I found out that it really helped me to get in that decrepit and vulnerable state. He never showed his teeth at that point. They were broken, and he ,had false ones so he always used a handkerchief. I also lost weight!
Besides Chet Baker, the other main protagonist is detective Lukas (Gijs Naber), who investigates the musician’s death. Rolf, why did you decide to include him as part of the story?
RVE: My goal was to combine two genres. You start with the genre of noir and the murder mystery and then you have the detective who is investigating Chet’s death and also having his own trouble and wild story with a wife that left him. He starts to learn about Chet but also about his music. There’s a very poetic scene between detective Lukas and an acquaintance of Chet where the detective starts to appreciate Chet’s music, and it touches him, so he’s able to let go and release himself from his ego constraint. That moment is when he’s opening his heart, and that’s why we decided to go for an intuitive dream-like cinematography. From there on, it’s no longer a murder mystery, but a more poetic discovery.
SW: A musician friend of mine, what she got out of the movie, said that when you are dealing with a figure who is seen as a “genius,” it’s surprising how people often forgive them all day. They become this kind of deity, and people will forgive them for everything. And so people like Chet, when they achieve that sort of fame in their lifetime, they know they can get away with murder.
The film has what I would say is a risky ending. Without spoiling it, why did you decide to go in a direction that could surprise the audience?
RVE: The powerful element of cinema is that you can play with time and space within the story you tell. It’s the ultimate artform to do that. What I wanted to do, after you see the story develop on these two characters who have something in common, is that after they start “together,” they would reunite by the end in one room. It’s not a plot driven movie, but it’s more a spiritual journey. Chet functions as a “Christ” figure, who gave his life to music, while the detective has to travel his own path.
What’s the journey for the movie ahead?
RVE: The film was released in October in Dutch cinemas. The Geneva International Film Festival is our first film festival, and we planned to screen the movie in different European [festivals] in the next months. There’s also the sales company behind the planning of a release in the United States and other countries.
What are your upcoming projects?
SW: I want to do more acting. This year was a very busy one for me with my music. My band The Stunning put out an album, and we kept playing festivals and touring. Next year, I wouldn’t mind taking some time out on music. I’m actually doing some writing because I haven’t written at home. There’s too many distractions, and I can’t day dream. I want to go to the country, rent a house for a while and work on that.
RVE: I’ve been writing another film for one and a half years now, and I applied for funding, and I got it. So, I’m very happy for that. It’s a very ambitious project. It’s the story about the family Bonaparte. Napoleon had a baby brother called Louis, and he was put on the Dutch throne. He was the first king of Holland. It’s about him, his wife Hortense and also about Napoleon, who is fighting with his brother about him not doing what he asks him to do. It’s also about this woman in between because Napoleon wanted them to have children for him because his wife Josephine couldn’t have children anymore. It’s a family tragedy and an intimate story of this very well known family in a very interesting period of modern Europe coming to its existence.
My Foolish Heart premiered at the International Features Competition of 2018’s Geneva International Film Festival.
Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.