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Dubbed “the James Dean of jazz,” Chet Baker was made for the big screen. Almost shockingly beautiful in his youth, the West Coast trumpet maestro landed a couple of minor film roles in the 1950s, but turned down a studio contract to pursue his musical muse instead. In the late 1960s, he even declined an offer from Dino De Laurentiis to play himself in a semi-fictional biopic. But film fame found him anyway thanks to Bruce Webber‘s sublime 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost, by which time Baker was a drug-ravaged ruin just months away from death.
In Born To Be Blue, Canadian writer-director Robert Budreau reimagines a pivotal low period in Baker’s life, the mid to late 1960s, when he was struggling with heroin addiction and a stalled career. Fresh from its special gala premiere in Toronto, this U.K.-Canadian co-production makes its U.S. debut next month at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Box office will likely be modest but solid thanks to Baker’s timeless music, plus strong performances by Ethan Hawke and his British co-star Carmen Ejogo, her profile on the rise after playing Coretta Scott King in Selma.
Taking the unmade De Laurentiis project as inspiration, Budreau playfully rewrites history to have Baker playing himself on screen, where he falls in love with the woman portraying his wife, Jane (Ejogo). It’s a nicely meta conceit that allows for some ravishing monochrome scenes that feel like stylistic homage to Let’s Get Lost. Jane is another fictional construct, a composite of several women in Baker’s stormy love life. She gets the familiar but all too plausible role of the infinitely patient soul mate who helps rebuild the shattered ego and washed-up career of her Great Male Artist partner.
Hawke is natural casting as Baker, sharing enough facial similarities to capture some of the late jazz icon’s chiseled, hollow-cheeked, fallen-angel beauty. He gives an unshowy and vanity-free performance, all soft-spoken mischief and brittle arrogance, but laced with just enough blood, sweat and tears. It’s another nuanced, mature turn as good as his other recent appearances in classy fare like Boyhood and Before Sunset.
Besides mimicking Baker’s ice-cool, quietly intense, Zen-like playing style, Hawke even makes a commendable attempt at singing a couple of his best-known vocal cuts, notably “My Funny Valentine.” Ironically, his voice is actually too polished and melodic to fully re-create Baker’s achingly vulnerable, off-key, lost-little-boy tones.
After ditching its film-with-a-film framework, Born To Be Blue soon settles into disappointingly conventional biopic mode. Budreau’s screenplay is never afraid to be obvious, with its clumsily explanatory lines and contrived conflict points: Baker versus Jane, Baker versus his pointlessly antagonistic dad (Stephen McHattie), Baker versus his cartoonishly frosty jazz rival Miles Davis (Kedar Brown), and so on. Drama requires compression and simplification, of course, but these stock plot devices just feel lazy and lifeless.
In visual terms, Hawke and Ejogo are both extremely easy on the eye, and share an agreeably warm sexual chemistry. But the movie around them looks a little flat and televisual: too clean, too bright, too period-perfect, too Mad Men. Still, at least the music is reliably great, with Baker’s melancholy trumpet snaking throughout the action like a perfumed breeze wafting across a lonely beach at sunset.
Production Companies: New Real Films, Lumanity, Black Hangar Studios
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Calum Keith Rennie, Kedar Brown, Kevin Hanchard
Director, screenwriter: Robert Budreau
Producers: Jennifer Jonas, Leonard Farlinger, Jake Seal, Robert Budreau
Cinematographer: Steve Cosens
Editor: David Freeman
Production Designer: Aidan Leroux
Music: David Braid, Todor Kobakov, Steve London
Sales companies: Creative Artists Agency, Cinetic Media
Rated 14A, 97 minutes
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