BORN TO BE BLUE (Dir. Robert Budreau, 2015)
There are obvious similarities that Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker film shares with Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film, both in current release.
They are both unconventional biopics about legendary jazz musicians, both trumpeters who struggled with drug addiction. Both center around the artist being on the verge of making a comeback. Both have film noir-ish black and white flashbacks to previous glories in younger years. And both take the facts and riff on top of them in an attempt to make the films feel like jazz itself.
But writer/director Budreau – a Canadian film maker that’s made nearly two dozen Canadian features, none of which I’ve seen – has fashioned a meta angle for his portrait of Baker, that involves him filming a movie in the ‘60s about his life in the ‘50s, and having a relationship with an actress who’s playing his first wife in that film.
While it is true that producer Dino De Laurentiis did approach Baker about playing himself in a movie, the project was abandoned long before any shooting took place, and the actress, named Jane Azuka, is a fictional character, a composite of several women in Baker’s life.
In possibly his finest performance, Ethan Hawke is fearlessly fragile as the used to be hot mess that was Baker, a heroin-addicted, almost toothless shell of a man who we first meet doing hard time in an Italian prison in 1966.
Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo (SELMA, THE PURGE: ANARCHY), helps Baker to stay clean and get work but his mouth injury from a beating by drug dealers (something that really happened albeit in a different way) has made it painful to play (he constantly fiddles with his ill-fitting false teeth). Slowly, Baker begins to get his groove back and with the help of his producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie) scores a special studio session for a small audience of record execs in which he nails the standard “My Funny Valentine.”
Hawke does his own singing on that and the film’s climatic “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and it’s an effective interpretation of Baker’s vocals that nicely doesn’t come off like a self conscious impression. Kevin Turcotte beautifully plays all of Baker’s trumpet parts as none of Baker’s actual music is in the film for some reason (I assume it’s a legal matter).
In bookending scenes at New York’s iconic Birdland nightclub, Miles Davis * (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) watch Baker on stage and feel his genius but they also seemingly know that he has to have smack in order to perform. Jane definitely knows this, and whether or not he will yet again succumb to addiction is what the film ultimately hinges on.
Hawke has put in a lot of solid work in his career (particularly in the films of Richard Linklater), but his turn here as Baker is an Oscar-worthy piece of work. He terrifically plays off of his own image of a post prime pretty boy, and his scenes with Ejogo, which have a real desperate undertone to them, are as pointed as they are sometimes painful to watch.
BORN TO BE BLUE, which takes its name from a 1946 Mel Tormé song that Baker covered in 1965, may strain from its over artsiness at times but it’s largely a soulful , sad ballad about trying to reclaim past glories. It may be too on the nose that the fictional female love interest here is named Azuka, which she says means “past glory,” but Budreau’s Chet Baker biopic, which I liked quite a bit better than Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie I have to say, has the gumption to get away with it.
* That's right, Miles Davis is in Chet Baker's movie, but unsurprisingly Baker isn't even mentioned in Davis's.