Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue showcases Ethan Hawke as the tormented jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in a fictionalised biopic.
Jazz rhapsodyby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Starting off with its central character hallucinating in an Italian jail and initially using the structure of a film within a film, Born To Be Blue is Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau’s impression of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker’s life. The scene in black and white of Baker being introduced to heroin in his hotel room after a gig is almost too stereotypical. But when it suddenly cuts, and we return to colour, we see that it’s taking place in the present day, with Baker playing himself in a film, complaining that the depiction is all wrong and it didn’t happen like that. How much happened as it did is open to question as the film takes us through a mixture of fact and fiction.
It’s true that Baker was a talented musician and singer and also a junkie. He was badly beaten up at the height of his fame, his vulnerable mouth smashed so that he lost his front teeth, a disaster for a trumpet player. Possibly it was done as retribution by a drug dealer he hadn’t paid as the film shows, possibly in real life it was just a mugging. The details are confused. But because of the effect of the serious injuries Baker suffered, the film that was being made of his life was abandoned.
Born To Be Blue covers a key period in his life in the 1960s when he was trying to make a career comeback – struggling both to relearn how to play again and to kick the heroin habit. Jane (an unfailingly understanding Carmen Ejogo), is the actress who was playing his wife in the doomed biopic. An invented character who represents an amalgam of all the women in his life, she sticks with him faithfully as lover, companion and even nursemaid, until he breaks her heart, as he does everyone’s. Baker could be charismatic, maybe even a tormented genius – he’s called the James Dean of Jazz – but he’s also a moody, irresponsible addict who seems not to care about his self-destructive habit’s effect on the people around him and it can be hard to see what keeps Jane with him. As Baker, Ethan Hawke’s performance holds the film yet even at his most dissolute he still has an air of being naturally clean cut, as if the role doesn’t quite fit him.
The film flashes back and forth between black and white and colour as it focuses on past and present turning points in Baker’s life. There’s his yearning for approval from the cool black jazz musicians Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard), to whom is he just a white boy playing soft West Coast jazz; his troubled relationship with his bitter father back on the farm in Oklahoma (Stephen McHattie); the many last chances that his patient producer (Callum Keith Rennie) gives him; his determination to play the trumpet again even though practice makes his gums pour blood; at his lowest point living with Jane in her camper van and meeting her disapproving parents; the alternating between methadone and heroin, without which he says he can’t perform on stage; and an intimate comeback rendition in a smoky jazz club of My Funny Valentine, his signature tune. There’s a plethora of jazz biopics around. This one leaves you with a feeling of unfulfilled promise, both in the life it portrays and in itself.
Born to be Blue is released on 22 July 2016 in the UK.