Review: Born To Be Blue
Based on the life of Chet Baker, Born To Be Blue's potent mix of fact and fantasy and Ethan Hawke's star turn as the trumpeter impress Bruce Lindsay
Let's make it clear, right from the start. Born To Be Blue, written and directed by Robert Budreau, may be colourful, dramatic, dark, jazzy, even inspiring at times - but it's not a documentary, nor does Budreau or its star pretend that it is. The central character is a trumpet-playing, drug-dependent, self-destructive jazz vocalist called Chet Baker. He's a man who bears a close resemblance to an actual jazz musician called Chet Baker, living a life that bears a similarity to the real musician's life, but there are no brownie points to be awarded to anyone who spots a "factual inaccuracy."
Born To Be Blue is the latest jazz-related movie to mix fact, fiction and fantasy to create a dramatic tale. The comparisons with Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead, released earlier in 2016, are already being made but while Cheadle's movie is fun, complete with car chases and shoot-outs which the opening scene makes clear are Davis's fantasies, Born To Be Blue is a much more sombre affair. If Miles Ahead is akin to Carry On Trumpeting, the Baker movie is much closer in mood to Clint Eastwood's Bird. The sombre tone and portrayal of a far-from-glamorous life are gripping, nonetheless and hold the attention throughout the movie's 90-plus minutes.
Ethan Hawke (pictured above right), Oscar-nominated in 2015 for Boyhood, gives an intense and complex performance as Baker. He veers from the pathetic to the sympathetic, from the likeable to the downright unpleasant: yet he always makes us feel at least some sympathy for the trumpeter. We watch as Baker squanders his musical gifts, alienates his friends and supporters, takes a forceful beating from drug dealers he has neglected to pay and ultimately alienates even his long-suffering and devoted wife.
The action takes place predominantly in the mid-60s, with flashbacks to the mid-50s when a younger, healthier Baker is the new name on the jazz scene. Helpfully, the flashbacks are photographed in monochrome, the 60s in colour. The story begins with Baker apparently being turned on to heroin by a young woman: it's soon apparent that this is in fact Baker playing himself in a scene from an eventually abandoned bio-pic. As the movie unfolds, the key relationship is between Baker and Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo), the actress and dancer who soon becomes his wife. Yes, Jane is a fiction, but Ejogo's performance gives the movie much of its heart: it's impossible not to admire Jane as she sticks with Baker through thick and thin until even she can't take it anymore.
Miles Davis (played by Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) appear in a handful of key scenes. Diz is helpful and encouraging, Miles begrudgingly acknowledges the young pretender's talent. Intriguingly, it's Miles's delayed and half-hearted applause at Baker's Birdland comeback that triggers wider audience acceptance of Baker's return - Miles Davis as kingmaker, or so it seems.
What about the music? The film uses none of Baker's own recordings, although there are plenty of recognisable songs alongside David Braid's original jazz numbers. Toronto-based trumpeter Kevin Turcotte plays most of the trumpet parts, capturing Baker's sound as Hawke mimes along. In those scenes where Baker's chops have gone - including a visually unpleasant scene in which the trumpeter sits in the bath and attempts to regain his embouchure with new dentures - Hawke plays the trumpet himself. The star handles his own singing, capturing Baker's emotional (and vocal) fragility. In the final scene, Hawke's poignant performance of I've Never Been In Love Before is genuinely heartbreaking.
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