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If you accuse a filmmaker of fudging facts in a biopic, he’s almost assuredly going to retort: “It ain’t history; it’s entertainment.” So let’s just dispense with the fallacies behind the phrase “based on a true story” and do what writer-director Robert Budreau does with his gutsy “Born to Be Blue” by being upfront in saying it’s all pretty much BS.
The only things real are the name of the main character, jazz great Chet Baker, and his self-destructive dependence on heroin. The rest pretty much emanates from Budreau’s vivid imagination. What’s weird is that “Blue” gives you a more realistic portrayal of Baker than if Budreau had gone the more traditional route. Much of that is due to Ethan Hawke’s Oscar-worthy portrayal of the doomed trumpeter. But the movie’s true strength is in its organic structure, which emphasizes Baker’s human frailty over his superhuman talent.
Budreau begins at one of the lowest points in Baker’s roller-coaster career, when he’s literally down on the floor, in an Italian prison, suffering from the DTs. It’s the mid-1960s, and the future looks bleak until producer Dino De Laurentiis walks into his cell offering to make the ruggedly handsome Baker a movie star, casting him in his own biopic. Let the Meta games begin.
Like Todd Haynes’ brilliant Bob Dylan bio, “I’m Not There,” “Blue” mixes irony and supposition to uncover the truth of what made Baker so driven. And like a lot of troubled musicians, it was rooted in his canon of insecurities, doubts he believed he could wash away with a needle and a spoon.
The goal was always to win the approval of his two most prominent contemporaries, Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) and Miles Davis (Kedar Brown), who had his own set of pharmaceutical demons. But all hopes of achieving it seemed to evaporate with a brutal beating in 1966 administered by alleged drug dealers. It cost him his teeth and his embouchure, meaning that his career was essentially over.
How he bounced back from that devastating injury, a years-long ordeal, serves as the nucleus for a film that gives most of the credit to a composited woman named Jane. She’s played with Job-like strength by “Selma’s” gorgeous Carmen Ejogo in a performance that wrings empathy from every pore. In addition to sharing a strong chemistry with Hawke, she’s the heart and soul of a film that is as improvisational as Baker’s music. It brims with sadness and a palpable sense of loss. But what haunts is the high personal cost of Baker’s artistry. It became his obsession, and in turn, his life. His spirit was his trumpet and his body merely a vessel.
What’s fascinating is how Hawke plays Baker the way Baker played the trumpet, always open to interpretation and unafraid to color outside the lines. It’s a complete portrait in which the actor disappears behind the character. It’s obvious Hawke gives much of himself in taking on the exhausting task of trying to keep up with Baker’s unpredictability. Like his music, Baker’s mood changes at a second’s notice, bold and confident one minute, sniveling and defeated the next. But always, Hawke is real and in the moment. It’s fabulous work, probably the best of his career.
He even helps smooth over many of the film’s rough patches in which Budreau betrays his instincts and allows conventionality to occasionally seep in, like when Chet and Jane travel to Oklahoma to visit Chet’s mentally abusive dad (Stephen McHattie). It’s the oldest cliché in the book, the father resenting his son’s success, but Hawke sells it so well you almost don’t mind.
And, of course, there’s the music, which is tremendous, especially when Baker indulges his love of singing on a couple of tear-inducing ballads, first with his trademark “My Funny Valentine,” and later with the movie’s showstopper, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” both sung beautifully by Hawke. Even if you’re not a fan of Baker’s music, or jazz in general, “Blue” will get to you with its melancholy melody of bittersweet love. It’s a sad song, but one that welcomingly lingers on the mind.
— Al Alexander covers movies for the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Born to be Blue
Cast includes Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo.
Written and directed by Robert Budreau.
(R for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence.)
Movie review: Hawke smooths over ‘Born to Be Blue’ rough patches
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