Biography Film Review 2016: "Born To Be Blue" (Written/Directed by Robert Budreau, Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo)
Artists come and go. Some become icons while others fade away into the time stream of the forgotten. Trends as inconsequential as LA Gear sneakers and 3D glasses. What drives them? What makes some tick and go to their breaking points to deliver on their destiny even in the face of insurmountable odds? What separates the survivors from those that assimilate into the status quo spurned by the fear of taking risks? While there are no de facto answers for any of these, Robert Budreau's intelligent, incredibly sensitive and impactful chronicle of infamous jazz trumpeter Chet Baker aims to address these themes head-on in powerful fashion. Considered a "mood piece" and not a traditional biography from birth till death, "Born To Be Blue", its film's namesake taken from Baker's jazz standard version of the song from his 1965 album Baby Breeze, never holds back from distilling the essence of genuine artistry and the sacrifices that must be made to triumph in a cutthroat and judgmental world.
So, just what goes into the mindset of a Real McCoy musician like Baker? The largest takeaway from this film is that the ingredients to success all have a common denominator: determination, vigor, some innate talent and drive. Baker, played to an astonishing, magnetic degree by career independent actor Ethan Hawke, exemplifies this most by his absolute single-mindedness that nothing stands in between him and his trumpet. Even as he's pistol whipped and kicked around in the street after a drug deal gone very bad that causes all of his front teeth to be knocked out, Baker never took the beating lying down for long. By being both resilient and courageous, his admission that he'd rather be dead than lose the opportunity to play trumpet forever, the prodigal son of the West Coast swing world would fire back and stage a comeback when just about everyone abandoned him. It is a real credit to not just Hawke, who convincingly replicates the real Baker's singing and playing, but his co-star Carmen Ejogo in a dual role of Baker's ex-wife and the real-life actress who became his love interest in this film. The film also boasts incomparable cinematography, noir attributes and a faithful recreation of the 1960s. Clearly a passion project for all involved, the resonant emotional payoffs of this film should send shock waves throughout the current insular jazz community.
There is a disclaimer at the end of the film that the actual events portrayed therein are, in large part, a work of fiction cultivated from the exploits of the real-life Baker. Another film, "Miles Ahead", the biographical drama of Miles Davis that top lined last year's New York Film Festival with a starring role and directorial debut for Don Cheadle, shares that in common with this one. While Cheadle's film unfolds as a more improvisational, off the cuff piece complete with an original crime caper plot, Budreau's movie is at its strongest in its dialogue, character interplay, romance and a star turn that really caps off Ethan Hawke's already revered filmography. You really see Baker's soul emanating through the whole movie that offers a meditative, thinking man's experience that substitutes fast paced action with a slow burning, precise examination. The film opens up the commentary on the necessity to make art for art's sake and not just for acclaim and profit. It is themes like this that are largely lost in today's popular music and culture where social phobias have developed thanks to an over-reliance on technology to communicate. Budreau is clearly in the mindset that preserving what's left of a bygone era is of utmost importance and that ascribing history to something imbues it with significance it may have lacked without.
I will say that if you go into this film expecting to come away with a large swath of factual knowledge about Mr. Baker, you'll be sorely disappointed and your best option would be to pick up a biography of the man. Having said that, this film draws on events he experienced but presents them in an unconventional story structure that mixes up the chronology to deliver a robust narrative whose chief goal is for the viewer to understand Baker as a tortured, flawed soul whose endless love of music and performance is put to the test when a spiraling addiction to heroin risks to rock his world and psyche to the core. As he is tested and enabled by the East Coast jazz community with such heavyweights like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to get involved with a high-flying, fast paced lifestyle, Baker begins to psychologically break little by little. Many tough scenes are included to drive this all the way home some of which include a scene where he plays his trumpet in his bathtub fresh off of an alley beating as he hocks up blood and winces in pain. The beating he endured was also effectively staged as you hear the crack of Baker's nose popping and his ribs cracking. But, through it all, after being told he'd never play again and be able to redeem his 26 years of practice and mastery, he staged one of the most unlikeliest comebacks in history.
This is a film targeted to artists and people of all walks of life. By skewing this film with a romantic angle to make it more universal, "Born To Be Blue" succeeds by its chemistry and art house direction, alone. If you've ever doubted whether a career in the arts is for you, this film will definitely hit home and could help you make an informed decision to ditch your 9 to 5 and pursue your dreams or relegate yourself to a safe life that would squander your potential. It makes a convincing case for the former by getting underneath the skin of one of the hardest working men in music whose influence is still very much felt today.