Friday, April 8, 2016

Born to Be Blue: A long, dark journey of the soul

Born to Be Blue (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use, sexuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang

After watching I Saw the Light, Miles Ahead and now this — all in the space of 10 days — I’m starting to wonder if any successful musicians have happy and stable lives.

After a day spent working on a movie in which he plays himself, Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke)
lays some charm on co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who — despite an earlier insistence
that she never dates colleagues — finds herself attracted to him.
Canadian filmmaker Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue can be viewed as an expansion of his 2009 6-minute short, The Deaths of Chet Baker. This new drama also is what Budreau terms an “anti-biopic,” which is to say an unapologetic blend of fact and fiction: a modicum of the former, plenty of the latter.

In other words, very little here is true; Budreau’s script improvises upon a few key moments during Baker’s career, much the way a jazz musician explores and expands upon a familiar tune, in order to deliver a riff that’s both the same and different.

Going in, then, we must regard Born to Be Blue as a jazz-inflected fever dream that, in time, will contribute its own layer of myth to what already has become Baker’s increasingly apocryphal legend. With that understanding, we can admire star Ethan Hawke’s thoroughly engaging performance as the troubled musician, whose career endured despite his own best efforts to destroy it.

Let’s begin with known fact: Baker was “discovered” by Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan in the early 1950s, and quickly rose to become a seminal figure in the nascent West Coast “cool jazz” movement. He also became a heroin addict, often pawning his trumpet in order to purchase the next fix. He wound up in an Italian prison on drug charges in the early 1960s, and — so the story goes — was approached by producer Dino de Laurentiis, who suggested that Baker star in a movie as himself.

That project never got off the ground, but — as this film opens — Budreau imagines that it did. We meet Baker (Hawke) as he clumsily maneuvers his way through a club scene fabricated on a movie stage, building to an emotionally intimate moment with co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo). Although a budding actress, Jane is serious about her craft, and mildly vexed at the notion of working with a guy who doesn’t know the first thing about acting.

But Chet wins her over. Despite a personal rule against dating co-stars, Jane falls for him ... just in time to confront a crisis. Emerging from a bowling alley after a sorta-kinda date, Jane watches in horror as Chet is beaten by goons associated with a drug dealer to whom he owes money; they knock out Chet’s front teeth, forever destroying his ability to perform in the manner that made him famous.

(Baker did lose his teeth during just such an attack, although whether it was a simple mugging — or indeed a drug deal gone bad — is a secret he took to the grave. And it happened after a gig at The Trident, in Sausalito.)

Jane improbably chooses to remain with Chet, helping to nurse him back to health. She’s hooked on him, much the way he’s hooked on smack. The movie project collapses; money becomes tight. Now fitted with uncomfortable dentures, Chet sets about re-learning how to play the trumpet.

As must have been the case in real life, this is a brutal, ghastly process, and Budreau doesn’t shy from grim details. This film’s takeaway scene — likely burned in my brain for eternity — is of Hawke, sitting in a bathtub, shuddering with pain as he blows uselessly into his horn, opening up insufficiently healed wounds and literally spraying blood through the gleaming instrument.

The money runs out; Chet reluctantly brings Jane to meet his parents, living on a rustic farm. Chet’s mother (Janet-Laine Green) is pleased to see them; his father ... not so much. In a nice twist, Dad is played by Stephen McHattie, who starred as a much older Chet in Budreau’s earlier short. Chet and his father eventually have one quietly frosty confrontation: a terrific moment between Hawke and McHattie, and a reminder that memorable acting rarely requires raised voices.

After a few months, having had his fill of parental disapproval, Chet insists on leaving; he and Jane drive to California, parking on a Malibu hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where they subsequently live in her VW bus. She seeks acting jobs; he starts sitting in with a pick-up jazz band at a local pizza joint. Chet contacts his longtime manager/producer, Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), who — oft burned, now shy — resists any further association with a drug addict who has let him down many times before.

And so begins the slow, agonizing process of rebuilding and redemption: a journey of the soul that Jane agrees to support, but only if Chet can remain straight.

Given what we’ve experienced thus far, those are long odds.

Jane’s love and trust notwithstanding, Chet also is driven by a goal that eluded him back in the 1950s: a headlining gig at New York’s famed Birdland. In Budreau’s vision, the keys to this particular kingdom are held by Miles Davis (Kedar Brown); brief flashbacks to the 1950s reveal tension between these two men, Davis clearly disapproving of this uppity white boy who trades too much on his good looks.

These sequences are shot in black and white, with cinematographer Steve Cosens deliberately echoing jazz photographer William Claxton’s iconic pictures of Baker. Otherwise, Cosens’ work deftly evokes the “look” of 1960s-era 35mm cinematography, with its slightly grainy texture and color. It’s a simple technique, but surprisingly effective.

Hawke slips into Baker’s skin quite persuasively; he exudes a layer of charisma that remains compelling, despite the gaunt frame, twitches and often fogged gaze, as if he’s constantly distracted by something that nobody else can see. He certainly pours heart and soul into the faux trumpet performances; these are ghosted, off-camera, by Kevin Turcotte, who delivers a masterful tone that itself sounds sweet but slightly damaged, like an underlying brass wail of pain.

Ejogo has an equally difficult assignment, in order to convey Jane’s devotion without turning her into a naïve enabler. The actress rises to the challenge, often standing just behind or to the side of Hawke, as if Jane wants to be ready to steady him, should his frequently off-kilter stance lead to loss of balance. Ejogo is well remembered as Coretta Scott King, in 2014’s Selma; she delivers the same blend of passion and loyalty here, layered with feisty intelligence.

We understand that Jane is wary of her choices, and has made — and continues to make — informed decisions. Ejogo and Hawke sparkle together, conveying the ease of two people completely comfortable with each other; the relationship feels real, in all of its tempestuous fragility.

Ejogo’s shining moment comes at the end of the film, as Jane reacts to a telling gesture by Chet: quite a powerful moment.

Tony Nappo is memorable as Reid, Chet’s sympathetic parole officer: a warm alternative to the harsh, one-note characters we usually get in such roles. Rennie is crisply businesslike at first blush, Bock’s features giving just a hint of the regret he feels over the apparent loss of a longtime friend and colleague ... and then, despite himself — as with Jane — he cannot continue ignoring Chet’s raw talent, or desire for resurrection.

Brown is appropriately contemptuous and condescending as Miles Davis; Kevin Hanchard’s take on Dizzy Gillespie makes him a kinder and gentler alternative.

The music is wonderful, but it’s not Baker; Hawke does his own singing — ably mimicking Chet’s breathy, almost girlish delivery — and Budreau knew that authentic archive recordings wouldn’t accurately reflect this stage of the jazzman’s uphill struggle. Turcotte therefore highlights a combo that includes David Braid (piano), Mike Murley and Dave Neill (sax), Steve Wallace (bass) and Terry Clarke (drums).

They cover all of Baker’s iconic hits, from “Let’s Get Lost” and “Summertime” to “My Funny Valentine” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” the latter two boasting particularly poignant vocals by Hawke.

The result is intriguing, melancholy and at times deeply moving. If Budreau’s goal was an alternate-universe take on Chet Baker — a deliberate attempt at legend, rather than life — then I’d say he succeeded. Jazz purists are likely to object to all the liberties, but — as the lights fade for the final time, and a few essential text blocks appear — there’s no denying that we’ve been granted a strong sense of what likely drove the man.

The angels and, most particularly, the demons.

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