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article imageReview: ‘Born to be Blue’ wants you to know there’s more to Chet Baker Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Mar 11, 2016 in Entertainment
‘Born to be Blue’ uses a difficult period in real-life jazz musician Chet Baker’s life to present a dreamy reimagining of the man behind the celebrity and legendary heroin addiction.
Great power may come with great responsibility; but great talent — that comes with heartache and temptation. Sex, drugs and, in this case, jazz are a way of life not easily avoided by artists. Whether you call it a weakness or a crutch, neither fully encapsulates the power these vices can have on a person. Chet Baker was one of the best trumpet players the scene had ever seen — and he knew it. But he was also convinced he was even better on the brass when he was high. As a result, Baker spent most of his career feeding a heroin addiction. Yet in contrast, Born to be Blue portrays a brief period in the musician’s life when he wasn’t always on the nod.
The film begins with Chet (Ethan Hawke) in prison, where he’s offered the chance to shoot a movie about his life with an Italian director. Agreeing equals his release, so he soon finds himself starring in his own biopic with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress that looks strikingly like his ex-wife. When a past debt results in Chet’s teeth being knocked out, he embarks on a long road to recovery and relearning the trumpet. Jane remains at his side, supporting his court-ordered sobriety and musical rehabilitation. Eventually he becomes the weekly headline at a pizzeria before convincing his former producer (Callum Keith Rennie) he’s good enough to get back into the studio. But a return to his previous glory may also mark a return to his previous habits.
The story is not entirely linear or an exact replica of real-life events. While grounded in this brief period in Chet’s life, scenes from the movie-in-a-movie that never really happened are used to illustrate moments from his past. When it appears he may be remembering, the film cuts to a black-and-white memory/recreation that has a dreamlike quality regardless of its actual origins. Though there are several instances of these recollections, together they amount to the motivation for his first needle that put him on the road to addiction.
By not centring on Chet’s addiction, the picture presents the side of him that drew people in and convinced them to grant him multiple chances. Hawke portrays a man who was charming and funny. In spite of others’ best efforts, they don’t seem able to resist him. Moreover, Chet’s talent and commitment to music are awe-inspiring. Watching him struggle to regain his skill and mesmerize people from the stage gives him an aura of attractiveness. And in spite of his many faults, Chet is a relatively nice, non-violent guy.
Hawke’s personal interest in the musician and enthusiasm for the project shines through the film. Rather than concern themselves with imitating the real-life personality, they work to capture and convey his essence. Filmmakers suggest the character is 80 per cent Chet, 20 per cent Hawke. The actor also practiced incessantly to mimic the trumpet player’s fingering so they could shoot close-ups and it would at least appear like Hawke knew what he was doing. Ejogo plays both his present-day girlfriend and ex-wife in the flashbacks. She’s able to communicate a lot in just a look, which is sometimes all one can do when dealing with Chet. Rennie’s character starts out with the tough love, but even he can only resist Chet for so long. Still, his last on-screen exchange with Hawke is the heart of the movie and musician.
Finally, to make the film more accessible to non-jazz fans as well as admirers, the music catalogue isn’t stacked with Chet Baker hits. Instead he’s shown performing several jazz standards such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Over the Rainbow.” This conceivably contentious decision allows audiences to maintain a connection with the musician without having to also wonder what song he might be playing. And even though Hawke is only simulating his trumpet skills, he does noticeably sing when required.
Director: Robert Budreau
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo and Callum Keith Rennie
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