Thursday, April 28, 2016


Rated: R

STARS: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie
DIRECTOR: Robert Budreau
GENRE: Drama/Musical/Art House 

It's become fashionable for biopics of famous people to begin at a point somewhere in the middle of the person's life where they are dealing with their greatest challenges. Get right to the dramatic part. No boring prologue--you can fill in some sketchy details along the way. And so it is with Born To Be Blue, about the life and times of jazz legend Chet Baker. A name only vaguely familiar to those who weren't around in the fifties and sixties, or aren't dedicated jazz aficionados, and that would be most folks on the planet today. So it would be easy to fictionalize much of their subject's personal life and no one is the wiser, which is what director Robert Budreau and company did--piecing it together primarily from stories that Baker told. Hey, all of these types of films are winging it to a degree if their subject is no longer around to authenticate the facts--and, for better or for worse, what most people end up with as their lasting impression is this photoshopped version of the person they saw in the movie. But I digress.

What is established is that Chet Baker was a great musician, arguably the best jazz trumpet player of his day. And that he was a junkie who allowed his habit to both enhance his ability, and become the ruination of him in the end. Dope and jazz. In most people's minds, they go hand in hand. And I'm afraid that Born To Be Blue will do nothing to discourage that impression for young musicians coming up in the world. But everyone makes his own choices.

Ethan Hawke plays Mr. Baker in an inspired performance. There are two things, however, that don't come through in the movie, through no fault of the actor. One: that Baker, at least in his youth, was a physically beautiful man--almost Elvis Presley good looking. Two: that he was a good singer. Hawke does all his own vocalizing in the film, and he's adequate--but unable to duplicate that certain je ne sais quoi that made a Chet Baker vocal/instrumental performance so haunting and hypnotic. But Hawke and a fine ensemble cast ultimately save the day, as the musician struggles in dramatic and dauntless fashion to relearn how to play his instrument all over again after being beaten up by some thugs and having his teeth knocked out. And in the process wins us over to his side.

P. S. Wear your shades during the movie so everyone can identify you as a hipster.

Grade:  B +

An Oscar contender already? You bet. My money is on Ethan Hawke to win the Best Actor statuette. (Hey, he didn't win last year for Boyhood so it's his turn!) I know it's off the subject but the day after I saw Born To Be Blue, I saw Miles Ahead. It got me thinking about biopics of addicted artists. Whether they're into crack cocaine or alcohol, there's a built-in problem: if their drug of choice turns them into assholes (which is often the case), it's hard to like them enough to watch their story unfold. I definitely felt that way when I saw Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock. Not so with Ethan Hawke's interpretation of Chet Baker. Despite his love of heroin, he had some redeeming characteristics. Like his determination to re-learn to play the trumpet after losing all his teeth! And when he wanted to be charming—in many scenes with his girlfriend, impressively portrayed by British actress Carmen Ejogo—he was quite likable. 

It was interesting to see how both Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle (in Miles Ahead) played their trumpets. It looked so real, so authentic, that I really believed they were blowing those horns. And that brings me to another plus about Born To Be Blue.The music. It was tastefully done and never overwhelmed the story. (As I felt happened in another musical prodigy film, Whiplash.)

I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying Chet Baker is no longer alive. Before the end credits, they tell you that he moved to Europe and continued playing the trumpet and using heroin until his death. What they don't say—and what I later looked up online—is that he fell out a window in Amsterdam and died as a result of the fall. No one knows if it was intentional or accidental. But you want to know another odd coincidence? He died on my birthday!

Grade :  A