REVIEW: Born to Be Blue [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 97 minutes | Release Date: March 25th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Robert Budreau
Writer(s): Robert Budreau

“Hello fear. Hello death.”

I’m not a jazz guy. I’ll listen, enjoy, and promptly forget it straight away. It all kind of sounds the same to me, but to each his own. If you can differentiate Miles Davis‘ sound from Chet Baker‘s you’re a better music fan than me. So to hear Robert Budreau‘s biopic of the latter wasn’t actually a biopic was to think it could be the greatest thing to happen to his story—not that Baker’s legendary life of West Coast Swing and heroin addiction didn’t provide ample material for a film itself. I like the idea of not being beholden to strict truth, but the essence of the subject instead. Whereas Don Cheadle played fast and very loose with Davis in Miles Ahead, however, Budreau merely reframes Baker.

What this means is that Born to Be Blue is still beholden to the biography genre’s truth if not Baker’s. The facts and rumors of his time during the 1960s are embellished or outright imagined, but the story progression remains familiar. Chet (Ethan Hawke) wakes up in an Italian prison to find a Hollywood director outside his cell (Dino De Laurentiis supposedly darkened his door in much the same fashion to pitch a film about his life wherein he’d play himself, but it never came to pass). Baker agrees and we’re quickly transported into a black and white gig at Birdland with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis in the audience. Is it flashback? Is it re-enactment? Both? Beyond the love interest, drugs, and music is so much more.

But do we ultimately see it? I loved the duplicity of this first black and white scene because you invest in it as a piece of history before Hawke and Carmen Ejogo (Jane in present day, Elaine in the past) break their characters of the film within the film to turn everything color and call into question what we can or should view as authentic inside a Hollywood film. Budreau knocks the transition out of the park and I hoped there would be more going forward. Letting Baker make this biographical film when he didn’t in real life provides a perfect window into the relationship between artifice and truth, yet the line never gets blurred again. Instead one color scheme signifies one thing and the other another.

We start to accept the black and white moments as old film footage of events that cannot be changed in context with the film’s version of Baker. We accept Ejogo is a literal stand-in for the women in Chet’s life, playing Budreau’s conscious amalgam Jane and subconscious memory of ex-wife Elaine. We accept that Kedar Brown and Kevin Hanchard play Miles and Dizzy respectively in both aesthetics uncaring that they do so in three different phases of reality. So rather than be manipulated, our minds render the unique quality Budreau instills as normal. Our brains find a way to let it make sense and the filmmaker never tries to prevent us from doing so. He just continues the tale of Chet—tragedy and joy, joy and tragedy.

The jazz legend loses his teeth in a fight (the truth of the incident is unknown since Baker’s junkie was hardly a reliable witness) and struggles to rebuild an embouchure with his dentures while sober and in love. This is the film’s plot and it is as by-the-numbers as it sounds. Will love save him from addiction or will his drive to be a great artist once more mute his love? We begin to care for him and Jane as they work tirelessly to get their lives on track—she an actress finding the audition process impossible to crack. We understand why former allies like Dizzy and Chet’s manager/producer Dick (Callum Keith Rennie) are cautious to let him back in and ecstatic when they do.

As a result we also learn to appreciate the evolution the Baker character must endure. He is literally knocked on his ass to the point where he must return home to Mom (Janet-Laine Green), Dad (Stephen McHattie), and the intense failure doing so instills. He has to work part-time pumping gas while kicking heroin and strengthening his mouth muscles. But it’s okay because he has Jane by his side. What this really means, however, is that he doesn’t have reason to let paranoid jealousies or public opinion get in the way. As soon as they return to LA the possibility of both follow closely behind to risk ruining everything they’ve built. And if you know anything about Chet, you know he died in Europe still an addict.

This one truth is what eventually makes Born to Be Blue worth a look. Because through all the paint-by-numbers musician biography checkpoints met, you do hope it may all end happily ever after like so many do. You hope the love will keep his demons at bay forgetting Baker’s tale isn’t one of woe. He doesn’t use to numb anything or forget his past. He does it for the art. It gives him confidence and clarity—or at least he believes it does despite knowing he had his greatest successes before ever trying the stuff. This lingering feeling that everything we see is figuratively and literally about to fall apart around him is crucial to the show-stopping finale in New York City that redeems the staleness before it.

It’s a synergistic success on every level from the smoke-hazed darkness of Birdland to the scared sick sweat and shakes Hawke performs at Chet’s crossroads deciding which means more to him: love or music. By this point we know his, Jane’s, and Dick’s motivations and each holds true to them for the answer to subtly arrive on-stage in a way that only Jane (and you if you’re paying attention) can catch. Just like the once promising career of a jazz wunderkind derailed by substance abuse and ultimately reinvigorated critically during later years in Europe during the 70s and 80s, the film projects possibility only to tear it down. And somehow the result is probably the happiest ending Chet could hope for. That truth is the saddest of all.

[1] Ethan Hawke (Chet Baker) in Robert Budreau’s, Born to Be Blue. Courtesy of Caitlin Cronenberg. An IFC Films release.
[2] From left, Ethan Hawke (Chet Baker) and Carmen Ejogo (Jane/Elaine) in Robert Budreau’s, Born to Be Blue. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[3] Ethan Hawke (Chet Baker) in Robert Budreau’s, Born to Be Blue. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

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