Movie Review: Born to Be Blue (2016)

“Love is instrumental”

3 Stars
Born to Be Blue (2016)

Born to Be Blue (2016)


Director: Robert Budreau

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Rennie

Synopsis: The story of iconic jazz musician Chet Baker.

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Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s ‘re-imagining’ of the life of jazz legend Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke – The Purge, Anarchy: Ride or Die), opens in 1966 when, at one of his lowest ebbs, the musician was offered the opportunity to star in a biopic of his own life by film producer Dino de Laurentiis.  Almost immediately, though, it departs from actuality, as Budreau makes plain his intent to capture the essence of the man through a fictionalised version of his life, rather than slavishly working through a chronological checklist of its milestones.   For some, this approach will immediately exclude Born to Be Blue from being taken seriously as an artistic representation of Baker’s life – but it’s a technique that enables Budreau to take a closer look into the mind of Baker than a straightforward account of his life ever could.   By condensing the period of time over which the film takes place to a matter of months, Budreau avoids the episodic nature that dogs many biopics, and creates a level of emotional intensity that simply wouldn’t have existed otherwise, while deftly explaining the forces that drove Baker throughout his life.

Baker’s co-star in the movie within the movie (which was never completed, and is shot in black and white) is Jane (Carmen Ejogo – Alex Cross), a struggling young actress who plays his fictional wife, a composite of a number of women in the real Baker’s life.   Reality mimics fiction as he and Jane begin dating.   But Jane is also a work of fiction, an amalgam of the real women in Baker’s life, and demoted to the rank of cipher, as if the film is saying that the women might have come and gone but the situations were constant.

Despite the innovative nature of Born to Be Blue, the situations differ little from those found in countless other biopics over the years.   Budreau confines many of the stereotypical moments to the black-and-white fictional biopic, but does stray dangerously close to over-romanticising Baker at times.   Thankfully, Hawke anchors the film with his portrayal of Baker as a thoughtful, tentative man who is no more larger than life than you or I.   But he’s a soul adrift, buffeted by circumstance and fear, yet rarely a victim of forces beyond his control.   He’s an addict, but drugs aren’t the biggest thing in his life – music is, so, when his teeth are knocked out by a vengeful dealer for non-payment of a debt, Baker endures the pain of false ones and spits blood from his mouth as he learns to play all over again.   But music feeds his need for drugs – “the notes get wider, not just longer, and I can get inside of every note,” he tries explaining to his despairing manager (Callum Rennie – Memento, Warcraft) – and the question of whether even the love of a soul-mate can keep him clean remains unanswered (for those who aren’t aficionados of the man and his music, at least) for much of the movie.

And as Born to Be Blue reaches its climax, we discover that the film isn’t so much about Baker’s love for Jane, or his enslavement to heroin, but his unconditional love for the music he plays.   Everything in the movie has built towards a truly heart-wrenching moment which concludes, not with Baker’s death, or an emotional showdown with Jane, but an arrival at a crossroads in his life, invisible and barely acknowledged, that packs all the force of a hammer-blow to the chest, and will resonate throughout the rest of the musician’s life.   For this, it’s possible to overlook the film’s flaws – which are few and minor, anyway – and to regret the fact that a movie as good as Born to Be Blue is unlikely to be seen by the wider audience it deserves.

(Reviewed 21st July 2016)

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