Director: Robert Budreau
New Real Films/Lumanity Productions/Black Hangar Studios
This impressionistic biopic of Chet Baker largely succeeds where the other recent impressionistic biopic of a legendary jazz trumpeter was just ludicrous, insulting, absurd. So why does Born To Be Blue work? For a start it actually makes sense. Miles Ahead played the bonkers card almost immediately and then piled absurdity atop. But Born To Be Blue is rich in metaphor and exquisitely framed and shot – it also has a pitch-perfect, understated Ethan Hawke who gets the facial angle spot on, has the baby-voiced alternates of shyness and smugness, is so very close to a version of Baker; he’s not concerned with looking just like him – though he’s a great choice there to play the James Dean of Jazz, but he gets the feel of him right, in the very clichéd but crucial sense you can feel that he gets the character right, has done the research, wants to sell this idea of Baker.
Rich in metaphor – however obvious – and scored with the great music to evoke the era this isn’t concerned with telling you the life story, you go to the books and records for that. What it does – as the recent impressionistic retelling of parts of Brian Wilson managed – is give you the feeling of some of the key moments that made (and broke) the man at the centre of the story.
A junkie until his death you get the feeling as this film flows – not unlike a great waft of trumpet solo in and of itself – that Baker would sooner brush off hope and aim for the good time of failure. There were daddy issues, pride issues, talent/technique issues. There were confidence issues.
But when he stepped to the mic or took up the horn something beautiful arose – in his very best work. And usually it was the vulnerability, or something that stemmed from that. A rare gift and this film then is a rare channelling of that.
There’s a film-within-a-film –type device which helps to explain the way the main feature is being made and why it’s being made that way (why it isn’t a straight reading, the boring doc-style timeline of some bogged-down biopics) and this too comes from truth and then is improvised around (Baker really was offered to star in a movie that traced around his life, the offer arrived when he was in prison – that movie though was never made).
That’s what’s great about this film – it’s not a complete knock-it-out-of-the-park but it simply knows what it’s trying to do. Hawke and co-star Carmen Ejogo (she plays ‘Jane’ a composite of various girlfriends and in the film-within-the-film she plays a variety of ex-lovers) are both incredible – vulnerability, sexual chemistry, tension, empathy; if it were just an acting tour-de-force that would be enough. But the respect the music is played is also a reason to see it, and Hawke proves to be a more than decent Baker mimic when he steps up to the mic (it’s his singing voice, just to clarify – not his trumpet playing).
I thought of the great Chet Baker doco and his wonderful memoir, both told their versions of the story in their own way and wandered off-script in a sense. Both were obviously part of the essential prep and muse and research for Hawke, Ejogo and writer/director Budreau And this film now takes its place alongside them – fragments of the truth left to lie just so.