Friday, April 22

REVIEW: Born to Be Blue

Directed by Robert Budreau
2015 Biography
1 hour 37 minutes
From IFC Films

Ethan Hawke
Carmen Ejogo
Callum Keith Rennie
Stephen McHattie

I have long been a fan of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, an icon of the 1950s and the very definition at the time of West Coast cool. While not a particular fan of jazz myself, I nonetheless was fascinated by this man. I thought the documentary on his life, Let's Get Lost, was a vivid, rather enthralling account, much, much better than this film. That's not to say I wasn't totally engaged watching this. It is a glimpse into his life for a period from the mid-60s to the mid 70s.  

As the story unfolds, Baker is getting out of jail or the umpteenth time. It may or may not have had to do with drugs but Baker was a famous junkie. He started heroin in the mid-50s and while he had periods of being clean, he always returned to his habit.

They refer to this biography as re-imagined... the current, nicer way to say fictional. I could not pick out every point that was made up or truthful events that may have taken place during a different time frame than was in the film. The most obvious stretch is the invention of the main female character, Jane. In real life there was no Jane. In truth she represented several women in Baker's life at the time. (If you saw Frances or Mommie Dearest, you saw the same thing.)  It's usually done for clarity or time concerns but here, at least, it works fine.

Baker meets Jane on a film set where they are starring in a film of his life.  He's not at his peak in performing or health and Jane falls in love with him as she becomes a stabilizing influence in his life. They reach an understanding where he will not do heroin and what success he has is because they seem to be together 24/7.

As hopes are building for a future together and his musical re-emergence, he is severely beaten by a group in some sort of botched drug deal. The men take particular savage delight in hitting Baker's mouth and his teeth, never the best anyway, were knocked out. His embouchure was ruined and even after being fitted with dentures, he feared his career was over.

He and Jane travel around in an RV. They stop and spend some time with his parents, a fussing mother and a father who has no time for his son or his African-American girlfriend.  Baker and Jane return to California living in the RV atop a cliff overlooking the sea.  He plays his heart out trying to master the horn again and once he does, to get a gig.

He has a few in the music business who still believe in him despite the fact that many have turned their backs on his junky ways. One such moment is a chance to blow his horn at a club where he'd enjoyed some success in the past.  Some influential people will be in attendance.  He is nervous but Jane is there with her steadying hand.  We get to hear him sing his most famous song, My Funny Valentine.  I had hoped we would.

That, in turn, led to a one-time performance at New York's famous Birdland where old pals Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis would be in attendance. Both are skeptical. Baker is, too, and it is heightened by the fact that Jane has remained in California for an acting assignment. The house is full and everyone is waiting for him. We see him in the dressing room, drugs on the table.  He suggests to the organizer of the event that he won't take them.  Is that the way it works out?  We next see him on the stage and as he starts singing his first number, Jane appears at the side of the stage. She listens and watches attentively and soon tears fill her eyes.

As a biography goes, this is a very decent one.  Cliches are kept to a minimum.  I don't consider showing the troubles of a famous person to be cliche as much as the story wouldn't be as compelling without showing them. Baker's equal passion for blowing that horn and shoving needles in his arms is clear throughout.

This is obviously quite the special project for director, Robert Budreau, who in 2009 had directed a short called The Deaths of Chet Baker.  It is said this film is simply an extension of that earlier work.  In the previous work, Stephen McHattie played Baker and in this film he plays his father.

I've heard this was a special piece for Ethan Hawke as well.  He had long been a fan of Baker's and he learned to play the trumpet for this film.  This certainly stands among the actor's better films.  I thought he knocked it out of the park, perfectly capturing Baker's
quiet demeanor and frequent fragility.  While there was nothing wrong with Hawke's singing voice, I think it would have been more effective to have used Baker's own.

Carmen Ejogo was equally outstanding as the loving and patient Jane, both nicely conveyed through the actress' tender countenance. Ejogo previously shone as Coretta King in Selma

The real Chet Baker

Outside of the boundaries of this story, Baker would soon move to Europe and enjoy some of the best years of his career.  He died in 1988 in Amsterdam of head trauma as the result of a fall from his second-story apartment.  No foul play was suspected. Cocaine and heroine were found in his room.

Those fond of Baker should certainly enjoy this film.  There is a lot here for biography lovers as well.  Splendid acting and loving direction is the centerpiece.

Next posting:
Talk about depressing

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