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Thread: BORN TO BE BLUE (Robert Budreau 2015)

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    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    BORN TO BE BLUE (Robert Budreau 2015)



    A crabwise study of the great jazz singer-trumpeter, with Ethan Hawke as our dedicated guide

    Jazz, drugs, and pretty photography can make a good combination, Robert Budreau's Born to Be Blue shows. It's a slice-of-life biopic about Chet Baker, with Ethan Hawke in the main role. Even though at no time did I forget it was Ethan Hawke, he nails the part. It's a time when Chet isn't pretty any more, but hasn't acquired the gnarled Skid Row junkie look of his latter days. The movie slides around in time, dreamily. The danger is that, if you don't know the life, this will just seem your standard doomed musician with drug problems riddled with self-doubt. What saves it is a sequence of settings and images. We don't get quite saturated enough in either the drugs or the jazz, but we can revel in the images. And we feel Ethan Hawake is our faithful guide, deeply into the sadness and loneliness of an artist useng drugs to assuage the pain. (Hawke, who's said he was thinking a lot of River Phoenix, whom he played with in his first film, and Phil Hoffman, whom he must have known in New York, may have been forgetting Chet says in the film that he just really, really liked getting high. But both things can be true.)

    Budreau shamelessly imitates the dramatic, angular style of great classic black and white jazz photography during an early sequence. Ethan Hawke, hair swept back, in a series of slightly seedy period costumes, strike Chet Baker poses. The camera takes us into clubs, bedrooms. Chet is playing himself in a movie, it seems (this is fanciful), and he turns the woman playing his wife in the film (the appealing Carmen Ejogo) into his girlfriend and wants to marry her. He gets his teeth knocked out by thugs, a famous incident that nearly wrecked his career, though when and why it happens we don't really know. He's on methadone and on parole and trying to stay clean and trying to regain his embouchure, the placing of his lips and facial muscles essential to play his instrument and create his special sound.

    There's no doubt in the film that Chet Baker is a jazz great. He's competing and collaborating with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. But the Miles Davis we see here (played by Kedar Brown), in contrast with the witty, wigged-out one soon to be seen in Don Cheadle's movie Miles Ahead, is a cloddish fellow, bent only on undermining Chet for being white and not having "lived." This calls for some clarification, which again the movie may not give unless you already know, but the true remark is passed, that everything came too easy to Chet from the start. This is often deemed to have been a factor in his weakness with drugs and life. It all came effortlessly to him, the perfect pitch, the trumpet mastery, the distinctive style. His playing is easy and light. He keeps it simple, thoughof course simplicity isn't easy; it just was for him, because of his gift. When he sings it is hardly singing at all, more the ghost of a voice, but the sound is distinctive, haunting, pitch-perfect. Ethan Hawke has the temerity to do his own singing, a nice job, but not Chet. Likewise the "live" sessions are played by musicians, not Chet or the people he played with. And it's like, but not the same as, the music.

    The film jumps around in time. That's alright, isn't it? The man was on drugs, or longing for them, and haunted by memories of times when he shone in the past. (Ethan Hawke of course can't play the young, perfect-looking and -sounding Chet Baker.) The jumping around enables Budreau, with Steve Cosens, his cameraman, and David Freeman, his editor, to present a series of riffs on their protagonist's life, in the Fifties, in the Sixties, mixing black and white for the earlier times with color for the later ones. The chronology is only vaguely alluded to and this is not, strictly speaking, Chet Baker's life at all. Only a passing reference is made to the long period from 1966 to 1974, even though it may be the film's focus, when Baker played "West Coast Jazz" and struggled his way back to the straight ahead jazz that was his element and in which he excelled, in Europe, and deepened his mastery of, in his later years, giving up the attempt to stay off heroin (we see his first high earlier), or to please the US penal system. One of the oddball virtues of Budreau's film is that it's not the conventional rise and fall, but a fall and a rising again. Even if most of the latter years of artistic success, obscure to Americans, are consigned to he film's end titles, and the triumphant but difficult return to play at Birdland, with Diz and Miles in the audience, seems iffy, Chet is making it back up, from pretty far down, and the film leaves him up. And high again.

    I have mixed feelings about the film. It's not to be condemned for being so abstract and unliteral, for striving to be artistic and not a conventional biopic. And yet by doing this, it somehow marginalizes itself, compared to films more central to the history of jazz like Bird or Round Midnight, Chet Baker perhaps himself more marginal than Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, or Miles Davis anyway. For the facts about Chet there is Bruce Weber's loving documentary, Let's Get Lost.

    Born to Be Blue, 97 mins., debuted 15 Sept. 2015 at Toronto; a couple of other festivals. First theatrical release 11 Mar. 2016 in the director's home, Canada, where it was mainly shot, US theatrical release 25 Mar., San Francisco Bay area 1 Apr.



    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-02-2016 at 01:24 AM.


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