REVIEW: Ethan Hawke, Robert Budreau's 'Born to Be Blue' Makes Tragic Chet Baker Cool Again
Given the measure of biopics coming out this year about late jazz legends, one would think that the time has come for the genre to make a comeback. Zoe Saldana channels Nina Simone, Don Cheadle the late trumpeter Miles Davis and, brokenheartedly, Ethan Hawke does the heroin-driven Chet Baker. A narrative that wants to bring you low--way low--the story fails, however, to do much to remedy its self-imposed blues.
Born to Be Blue, of course, takes its name from, perhaps, the second most associated track to Baker (the first being My Funny Valentine) and takes plenty of liberties in recanting the Chet Baker saga, albeit seemingly out-of-sequence, too. But Canadian filmmaker Robert Budreau puts to rest the notion that this is all hyperbolic self-destruction, incanting yet another "troubled artist" story. But for some, that story never gets old.
In the first scene, we can see Baker (Hawke) stumbling through a drug-induced fugue, bringing into his hotel room a woman he just met after his performance at the legendary Birdland Jazz club. It's here that the film takes a brief look at itself and then changes its course altogether, something Budreau wittingly threaded into the storyline.
Actually, Budreau somewhat turns the lens inward too, and just as the mise-en-scene turns black and white and smokey, Hawke's version of Baker begins to laugh, his costar Jane (portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, and who is an amalgam of all of the Baker love interests) remarks that no one would stay with such a deranged, strung out fool.
And suddenly, we're in color, with Baker and his cool, barely audible rasp speaking voice. Talking to his longtime manager (played by Callum Keith Rennie) about how he failed to contact him when he was released from an Italian prison, this is where some of the true details about the Baker biography come to light.
On the set of the movie Baker was commissioned to star in (which helped bail him out of jail) we meet cute the love interest. The actress acting opposite Baker in this seemingly never-to-be-released movie helps nurse the trumpeter back to health after he is badly beaten by a group no-name thugs. In the period following, Jane helps Chet redevelop his skills and influence what would soon bring on a revival of Baker and induce an era that would mark some of Baker's most tragic and heartfelt performances.
The film altogether meanders around the love interest and their struggle to keep the flame going, even as the California wind tries to blow it out. But by the end, Chet chooses the trumpet, and with the trumpet he chooses dope. A lifelong addict cut down by his own vices, Hawke's Baker puts you down and never wants to bring you up. At times, also, you can feel yourself pressing your tongue against the back of your front teeth just to make sure they're still there.
The scene in dealing with Baker fervently trying to recapture his essence as a musician after his teeth are kicked loose is, at times, too painful to watch. Spitting blood in a bath and even trying to set his dentures while in the studio with Dick Bock's at Pacific Jazz recordings is not an idea most anyone can wrap their minds around. But it doesn't stop the film from making you feel it--a rare quality but one indicative of decent film making.
Until its release on March 25, Born to Be Blue sits in the balance waiting to premiere at your local cinema. A movie that feels like it was announced a decade ago, Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker was believable and brought with it a sense of cool.
When you leave the theater, and yes, that means this should be on your list of movies to see this season, try not to fall into the swing of California jazz in your every day stride. This Chet, while a mere fabrication, is something the James Dean-era will appreciate both in looks and in spirit.