A Funny Valentine tells the stranger-than-the-truth story of jazz musician and fallen angel extraordinaire Chet Baker. The enfant terrible of the jazz world is brought to life with the help of a trumpet player and keyboardist to give a pleasing, if at times flawed, portrayal of an icon and his 30-year drug habit.
It’s Friday 13th, in May 1988, and we meet Chet as he dies under strange circumstances in a hotel in Amsterdam. True to the way the previous 58 years of his life have gone, the circumstances of his death are ambiguous, although the narrator firmly notes “Chet wasn’t a suicide – Chet was a survivor”. This sets the tone of this reverential look at his frequently troubled life. Action takes place in post-war Berlin, America, London and most importantly at the sensational trial of Baker in Italy, surreally led by a “fascist drug addict and trumpet player prosecutor”, with both his wife and mistress present – of course.
The path of his life is littered with failed marriages, dealers, fellow musicians consumed by drugs, and so much excess that it’s almost unbelievable he lasted as long as he did. Music is effortlessly interwoven throughout the performance to really bring Baker to life. A non-linear structure works well and grabs your interest from the start, although the pace does start to flag in the middle.
Fundamentally, Baker comes across as deeply unsympathetic – yet much of the show bordered on being a hagiography, such as the way heroin was repeatedly referred to as “his medicine”. By the end, I had a profound sense of a life that was wasted and someone who took his toll on those all around him – but nothing deeper. I’m also not sure the perspective the story was narrated from – while a surprise reveal – necessarily added much to the proceedings either.
Professionally put together and overall well-staged, this was an enjoyable if superficial look at someone whose only redeeming features were his musical gift and a Keith Richards-eque ability to survive chemical compounds. A good way to while away an evening, particularly for jazz fans, but not unmissable.