Sunday, April 3, 2016
BORN TO BE BLUE
When I was a young "jazz musician" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a rivalry between West Coast and East Coast jazz, much like the later rap coastal rivalry. Whether manufactured or not, as an East Coaster whose jazz icons were representative of the best the East Coast scene had to offer—Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bill Evans et. al.—I murder-mouthed Chet Baker regularly, as just a pretty face with limited musical abilities.
It wasn't until I got older that I began to appreciate Baker's unique musical contribution, both as a trumpeter and singer. By then Baker was a wreck of his former self, having indulged his heroin habit beyond what might seem possible, yet he could still on occasion pull off a compelling performance, both live and recorded.
Despite the liberties taken by the Canadian writer/director Robert Budreu (Baker's heirs sued him for it), like Baker himself, BORN TO BE BLUE transcends its limitations to create not just an engaging and heartfelt film, but an insightful glimpse into the contradictions of creativity. The movie doesn't show Baker at his worst (he's presented more as victim than protagonist, i.e. no scenes of his well reported physical abuse of wives and lovers), but it does give an authentic picture of heroin addiction (according to friends who have gone through similar experiences) and it captures the sometimes unexpected moments of awe-inspiring creativity that can occur despite shortcomings and limitations.
And Ethan Hawke is mostly the reason why. The script is so contrived at times that it seems almost ludicrous for anyone who knows Baker's story, and yet it expertly distills the essence of that story into an almost perfect film, with Hawke making it all believable. When I heard his version of Baker's singing on an NPR show before I saw the film, I thought: That sounds like Ethan Hawke doing a bad imitation of Chet Baker. But when I saw Hawke singing in BORN TO BE BLUE, I was totally captured by the scenes, accepting completely that this was the real artist being represented and not an actor (who I had actually worked with, on WHITE FANG, the first movie Hawke was the main lead in—and on the set of which he was the least diva-like star I ever worked with).
It is such an amazing performance, I can't believe he didn't win some awards for it. I gave him a bunch in my head when the movie was over. And his fictional love interest in the flick, played by the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Carmen Ejogo, worked so perfectly with his performance it bought to mind Baker and Gerry Mulligan's collaboration in the brief time they played together, the highlight of both their early music careers (Gerry said Baker was like a musical idiot savant, that he didn't understand lot of basic musical concepts, sometimes not ever aware of what key he was playing in or at least unable to communicate it to others, and yet he intuitively could duet with Mulligan in ways no one was doing at that time).
BORN TO BE BLUE is, for my taste, not just one of the best biopics of recent years (and there have been a lot) but just a lovely little work of art.