Born to Be Blue, 2015.
Directed by Robert Budreau.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie and Stephen McHattie.
The career of jazz musician Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) looks to be over. He’s addicted to cocaine and a savage beating makes playing the trumpet almost impossible. But he’s determined to get back to the top.
A second jazz movie in just three months. First it was Don Cheadle’s personal project, Miles Ahead. Now the spotlight switches to his contemporary, Chet Baker, in Born to Be Blue, and it’s easy enough to draw a few parallels.
Both films are named after famous tracks from the musicians and Davis (Kedar Brown) puts in a handful of appearances in the Baker movie. More significantly, both titles trace their proverbial wilderness years, when they separately dropped off the music radar, and there’s some similarities in the approaches taken by their respective directors, mixing fact with fiction. But that’s where the two films part company, because Robert Budreau’s jumping off point is a bio-pic about Baker that never actually saw the light of day.
Born to Be Blue opens with an extended sequence from that film, made in black and white. From there on, there are regular scenes from the bio-pic as it merges into the main storyline, one that follows Baker from the savage beating that knocked out a number of his teeth and almost finished his trumpet playing days for good. He has a lengthy relationship with actress Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who also plays his wives in the bio-pic and supports him throughout his struggle to re-gain his career. So not the conventional film-within-a-film, but nor is it a wholly satisfactory approach, because we never know how much of what we see in those black and white scenes is fact and how much is fiction. It’s an issue that spills over into the main story as well: the physical attack on Baker and his addiction to drugs are well documented, but how much of the rest is simply down to creative license we can’t really tell.
But those black and white scenes also make you wonder what might have been. It’s no disrespect to the title to say this is a film born to be in black and white. Not only is monochrome more in tune with the period, it’s perfect for depicting the sleazy, seedy side of the jazz clubs on the screen. Budreau has missed a trick. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with the colour cinematography: there’s some striking shots, especially of Baker playing the trumpet in a snow covered field. But shooting in black and white would have taken things to a whole different level.
The film’s driving force, inevitably, is Ethan Hawke as Baker, in a performance that doesn’t just hold the film together but completely galvanises it. An indie favourite after his work with Richard Linklater and, most recently, in Maggie’s Plan, he re-creates the James Dean Of Jazz with intensity and intelligence, giving us a portrait of an incredibly talented musician who is, by turns, driven, spontaneous and destructive. Hawke and Linklater spent years trying to get a film about Baker off the ground but gave up because they couldn’t raise the money. Again, you wonder what might have been ……
Hawke gets strong support from Carmen Ejogo as his lover Jane and Callum Keith Rennie as his long-suffering manager, Dick, who is supportive as he can be, but there are times when even his patience is stretched to the limit. And, as Baker’s near-estranged father, Stephen McHattie is a man who struggles to understand his son’s way of life and can’t hold back his disappointment. The resemblance between the two is such that you believe they could have been father and son.
All of them are good, but they are totally outshone by Hawke, who is hardly ever off the screen. It’s probably just as well because, without him, the film would be more than a little flat. While he soars, the movie only just gets past middle C.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★