Wednesday, March 23, 2016

That Old Feeling: Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue.

Whenever a movie comes out about a musician I have high expectations. Will the movie fall into clichés about the troubled artist who’s abused by the wrong people? Or will we witness the story of a gifted individual who sins against his talent? One of the worst films for me was Sidney Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues, the overly melodramatic portrait of Billie Holiday that came out in 1972. One of the best was 2014’s Love & Mercy, a beautifully rendered portrait of Brian Wilson. That picture not only captured Wilson’s talent as a composer, it also took the risk of embracing his mental health and how he was able to find creative relief in his music in spite of the voices he heard in his head. 

The story of the troubled-yet-gifted jazz musician Chet Baker is nicely rendered in Robert Budreau’s movie Born to Be Blue, but it falls short of making the most important connection of Baker with his muse. Ethan Hawke, who plays the famous trumpeter, immerses himself into Baker’s troubled soul with complete abandon. Baker, a heroin addict to the end of his life (he died in 1988 at the age of 58), was one of the biggest stars in music during the mid-fifties with his James Dean look and his romantic music. To make his point, Budreau contrasts Baker’s career with two musicians from the New York jazz establishment, namely Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, who believed Baker was too cute to be taken seriously in be-bop circles. To them a jazz musician “had to live” in order to be credible. The point is made, but the one-dimensional Miles and Dizzy characters seem like props rather than real people. Actor Kevin Hansard ingratiates Gillespie with humour while degrading Baker on his “flat” singing style. Kedar Brown plays Davis with so much attitude that he left me cold. Miles was edgy and smug by most accounts, but he wasn’t always the prick of the hour. 

For the first third of Born to Be Blue the director steers us in an interesting way by using the stylized black & white film (within the movie) to dramatize Baker’s early success and his first encounter with the drug that seduce him. But Budreau has a hard time focusing on why that period of time is important in understanding Baker’s present, as it were. Part of the issue has to do with Baker (Hawke) playing himself in the pseudo-drama along with his co-star Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo. But Baker’s drug-induced sense of reality is distorted, as the director of the pseudo film, played by Tony Nardi, winds up cancelling the production because Baker can’t kick his habit. Ironically Budreau actually drops the technique by the middle of the picture. At this critical point, Baker loses his front teeth to some dealers looking to collect from him. Baker now has to relearn the instrument and since he has no money, decides to visit his parents in Oklahoma begins his recovery. This part of the story contains some redemptive qualities that humanize Baker, but it’s the weakest part of the writing as Baker is ostracized by his former musician father (played by Stephen McHattie) and his slightly over-bearing mother (played by Janet Laine-Green), who immediately embraces her son while shooting down his girlfriend Elaine, “You look like Jane, Chet’s first wife. I never liked Jane.” Fortunately Budreau doesn’t belabor the point, and Baker leaves the homestead after getting his chops back and heads back to California with Elaine. At this point, the movie became more engaging for me. 

Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo in Born to Be Blue.

Hawke really steps up and finds the character’s inner life. But, even if you don’t know who Chet Baker is, the broken personality of an addict staggering forward is unpleasant to watch but Hawke’s nuanced performance succeeds. We see a gifted musician passive-aggressively manipulating the people around him into giving him a second chance. Baker gets that chance but has no willpower, and just as he returns to the New York stage to make his comeback, he self-injects heroin in the dressing room. While he makes beautiful music it’s at the expense of the people who love him. This is nicely rendered in the final scenes of the movie. 

I really liked Hawke’s performance. We see a man trapped by his addiction and while he kicks the habit for a short time, his sense of loneliness and depression are too painful for him to endure so turning to heroin allows him to “experience love.” British actress Carmen Ejogo (Elaine) is equally strong in her performance in the movie because she brings out the humanity in Baker without the pity. Elaine, seduced by his charm and talent, loves him but she can’t save him. Ejogo has presence in every scene. Her character relies not only on her good looks, but also on her passion for being an artist in her own right. (Elaine is a struggling actress in the movie.) 

Another strength of the picture is the music. Budreau hired some of Canada’s best musicians to play in the spirit of Chet Baker: Kevin Turcotte, in the all-important trumpet chair, and pianist David Braid, who arranged the music we hear in the film. Budreau also uses the music to advance the narrative with complete performances spread out over the 97-minute feature. Hawke sings in his own voice but mimics the valve movement on trumpet. Ben Promane of Toronto coached Hawke successfully because the actor is quite convincing during the instrumentals. (A soundtrack is scheduled for release in April.) 

Born to Be Blue borrows heavily from Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost. Shot in black &white, Weber’s film combined interviews with Chet and his family with scenes from Baker's life as a young and dashing star. That film, which is one of the best documentaries about a musician, holds nothing back in evaluating Baker’s artistry, with insights from fellow musician Jack Sheldon to the ruins of his addiction that left most of his family broken and distraught. By the end of the documentary Baker is a pathetic man who accepts some responsibility for his actions but has little remorse. In Born to Be Blue, Hawke plays Baker with just enough pathos to induce sympathy from the audience, a trait heard in every note ever played by Chet Baker. 

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He’s just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in September.

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