Mark Reviews Movies

Born to Be Blue


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Budreau

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Tony Nappo, Stephen McHattie, Janet-Laine Green, Kevin Hanchard, Dan Lett

MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 3/25/16 (limited); 4/1/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 31, 2016

The Chet Baker of Born to Be Blue doesn't lie about his drug addiction. He doesn't say that he uses heroin to numb the pain of past failings or his inner demons. Instead, he started because that was the thing for jazz musicians of the time to do.

His first break came, the Baker of the film recalls, when Charlie "Bird" Parker picked him out of a crowd of eager trumpet players to join his band for some gigs. Parker, of course, died at the age of 34 after a short life of drug use. The story goes that the coroner figured Parker was a man in his 50s when the jazz legend's body showed up on the autopsy table.

At the height of his career here, Baker's chief rival of sorts is Miles Davis, another trumpeter who struggled with addiction. Davis made it to 65 years old. Baker was 58 when he died. That's a competition in which neither man came out the victor.

Before he plays a set at the famous Birdland club, Baker asks a fan if she prefers him or Davis. Somehow, his first encounter with his drug of eventual choice feels like an extension of that moment and how that moment represents some need to live up to the expectations set by his contemporaries. It was Davis, the film suggests, who gave Baker his first dose of heroin by way of a woman who was not Baker's wife.

We're already at two of the usual character flaws we get from these movie biographies of famous musicians—drug use and philandering. What's refreshing about writer/director Robert Budreau's film is that doesn't offer any easy answers for why Baker indulged in these flaws to a point that they nearly ruined his life—and, if we look the big picture of death at the age of 58, did ultimately destroy him. Perhaps it's better to say that the film offers the easiest answer to the not-so-mysterious mystery of Baker's problems: He liked them.

He says he likes the way he feels when he's high. He especially likes the way he plays his instrument while under the influence. He feels as if he's escaping into and living in each note. Whether Baker actually played better while he was high is a question best left to jazz aficionados. Budreau argues that his playing was undeniably, noticeably different. Playing the trumpet was easy for Baker, and it became easier when he was on heroin. He was talented, and that's where he stopped his efforts—on sheer talent.

The film's story is set primarily in 1966, after Baker (played with quiet pain and determination by Ethan Hawke) has spent some time in an Italian prison. When we next see him, it's 1957, and Budreau and cinematographer Steve Cosens have shifted to black-and-white. It's that first time using heroin, and his wife finds him passed out on a hotel couch with another woman.

The scene halts with the snap of a clapboard. The wife is actually Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress who soon becomes Baker's lover, and Baker is playing himself in the movie of his life ("If you wanted realism, there'd be puke everywhere," he informs the director). It's Budreau's way of telling us that his own biographical account is, to one degree or another, as phony as the fictional one within it.

It works, too, because it eliminates the expectations of some beat-by-beat narrative of Baker's life that sticks to the facts. This film doesn't care as much about facts as it does about crafting a story that feels authentic.

That story follows Baker following an assault perpetrated by a gang to which he owes money. He loses some of his teeth and, as a result, is unable to play the trumpet. There's a painful scene in which Baker tries to play, placing himself in a bathtub because he knows that he will be gushing blood from his mouth. He's also on parole following a previous incarceration, meaning he is on a methadone regimen to curb his drug habit and must find a steady job.

Budreau sets up a clear goal with this story: Baker must overcome these obstacles in order to get back to playing. It's a sturdy narrative, and it allows Budreau the chance to juxtapose the Baker of the past—during the worst period of his addiction and his failing marriage (Ejogo continues to play his wife during the flashbacks)—with the one of the present. The height of his professional career placed against its lowest point—Baker as an ideal artist who can effortlessly play or him as ideal a man as he can possibly be while working to even be called a musician.

There's a genuine sense of struggle here, for Baker to both practice his trade and better himself as a person. Budreau brings him home to Yale, Oklahoma, where his father (Stephen McHattie) can barely stomach his son's presence. His singing voice is too high, the old man says, and the son has brought shame to his family name. Meanwhile, Baker takes odd jobs, pumping gas in his hometown and almost begging his former manager (Callum Keith Rennie), who thinks the actual necessity for effort on Baker's part has turned him into a deeper artist, to let him work in the recording studio—if not playing with a mariachi band, then doing some painting.

This material may fit into the formula for screen biographies, but it's elevated by a real attention to the character—especially in the realm of the never-ceasing debate between whether talent or hard work makes an artist. Born to Be Blue is, essentially, a comeback story, but Budreau challenges even that expectation by the end. What Baker came back to was a life that ended at the age of 58.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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