Directed by Robert Budreau
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie
Released on 25th July 2016
Director Robert Budreau has something of a Chet Baker habit. Back in 2009 he wrote and directed a short about the musician’s death in an Amsterdam hotel room. Now he’s gone further back into the trumpeter’s history for Born To Be Blue, an examination about his decline and return to the music world in the late 1960s.
His star, Ethan Hawke, shares the same interest. For years, he and director Richard Linklater were looking at doing a film about Baker, but it was eventually shelved because they couldn’t raise the money. What might have been …..
So, after Don Cheadle’s personal project, Miles Ahead, about Miles Davis’s time in the musical wilderness, now we’re looking at Chet Baker’s decline and return to the big time. Just as Cheadle used a certain amount of creative license to tell his story, so does Budreau, this time merging the main story with extracts from an unfinished film about Baker that never saw the light of day.
It starts with an extended sequence from that film, in black and white so that the dividing line is clear, and then merges into the main storyline, following Baker from the savage beating that knocked out a number of his teeth and almost finished his trumpet playing days for good. He’s dating the actress from the bio-pic, Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who proves to be a massive support during his comeback. He battles against badly fitting dentures until he gets his teeth fixed properly, but even worse and potentially more destructive is his cocaine habit: he’s on methadone for most of the time, but the old white demon raises its head again. Yet, despite all that, the comeback is very much on the cards.
Let’s do the film’s big strength first. Ethan Hawke, pure and simple. He doesn’t just hold the film together, he’s the driving force, a one-man dynamo who’s never off the screen. He embodies the James Dean Of Jazz, both in terms of the character – rebellious, driven, complex – but he also has the right look. And it’s a look that translates into some of the strongest images in the film, many of which come when he returns to the family farm and plays the trumpet whenever and wherever he can – including a never-ending snow covered field.
Back to those black and white scenes. They’re the one aspect of the unfinished film that really does work and it’s yet another case of what might have been. The entire movie cries out to be in monochrome. Not only is it a good match for the period, but it outshines colour when it comes to portraying the grubbiness and sleaze that goes with the jazz clubs, especially behind the scenes. Budreau has missed a trick.
As a whole, there’s an air of predictability about the film and you don’t have to know Baker’s story to feel that. It’s written all over the screen that the most important things in his life are playing the trumpet and snorting cocaine. All of which makes it a film of unfulfilled promise – with the exception of Hawke. His performance hits the heights. The rest of the movie just about manages to make it to middle C.
Born To Be Blue is in cinemas, on DVD and available on download from Monday, 25 July and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 21 July.