Rated: R for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: September 13, 2016 Released by: IFC Films
West coast jazz musician Chet Baker (exhibited well here by Ethan Hawke of Boyhood and Before Midnight) is given some atypical musical biopic treatment by Canadian director/writer Robert Budreau in an unusually enticing Born To Be Blue.
Not to say that there aren't some of the typical pitfalls inherent in a genre where personal top-tier talent is thwarted by an inner strife from the subject's heroin addiction, encapsulating the essentials in a relatively short period of time. Hawke's deep admiration for the tormented, yet dedicated individual reflects stylistic choices here to honestly capture the essence of a character, warts and all.
Shot mainly in Ontario, Canada, subbing for California where much of the proceedings is set when Baker is planning a comeback at Birdland, a jazz mecca, and a chance for a new recording contract.
The hook in the restrained approach of material hampered an iota in the narrative flow and familial trips is Chet's chance to play a role in an adaptation of his life on screen. One that gets him out on parole from an Italian penitentiary. A double-take is had after listening to a line from Baker about his compulsion and realizing the scenario occurring.
A refreshing originality is to be observed in a spin on a rise-and-fall story of a white musician revered by many of his black peers, including the estimable Miles Davis. A skeptical record producer (Callum Keith Rennie) and a much-needed support system in his girlfriend/co-star Jane/Elaine, filled with arcane ardor by Carmen Ejogo of The Purge: Anarchy (Hawke starred in The Purge a year earlier) are key figures in his sphere.
The filmmaking doesn't dwell on drug-addled issues (Baker would later succumb to heroin) nor what was the passive-aggressive source of Baker's saturnine state. Hawke really delivers on a character with charm, wit and vulnerability to burn, maybe at times like what Chadwick Boseman did with James Brown in Get On Up. And, Born To Be Blue thrives on the vibrant chemistry of Baker and an urging if babysitter in Jane (a composite of Baker's real girlfriends. In one case he gets doped up with one and ends half-naked on a sofa) with a sprightly, sexy Ejogo of Sparkle and Selma arguably elevating one of Hawke's most persuasive and interesting characters to date.
A rough confrontation with a dealer leaves a mostly low-key Chet (who can have volatile lapses) in a more pained position (as production is shut down) to return to his glory days, having to relearn how to be the trumpeter he once was while going through methadone treatment.
Blue is born and bred with some inspired stylings that recall the altered personas of Bob Dylan in a more audacious I'm Not There with at least one haunting recording of a tortured artist willing and determined to move forward. Even if a sordid lifestyle would eventually win out in the end, a limited unique (film-within-a-film) portrait isn't really trying to define those unrelenting demons as his enduring legacy.
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