BORN TO BE BLUE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
for drug use, strong language, some sexual content, and brief violence
Released: March 30, 2016 limited; April 22 expands. Also VOD.
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Robert Budreau
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Kevin Hanchard, Kedar Brown

A biopic that starts with loads of potential and wraps with an absolute gut punch, Born To Be Blue – a portrait of the iconic yet troubled jazz trumpeter Chet Baker – flirts with greatness, but also can’t resist proverbial genre tropes. The occasional peaks are transcendent, and the rest is handsomely made and worthwhile, but the whole could’ve been so much more.

Director Robert Burdreau (a bit of a Baker specialist, vis-à-vis his 6-minute short film The Deaths of Chet Baker) begins Born To Be Blue with what appears to be an inspired approach to a biopic: the fictional contrivance that Baker has been cast, while at the low point of his career, in a film about his life. Black-and-white footage initially suggests nothing more than a straightforward-if-artful drama, but then color footage reveals the filmmaking conceit, showing Baker on set.

Brilliant. A meta framework in which flashbacks “dramatize” Baker’s rise and fall in a polished black-and-white, then a forward-moving, more naturalistic trajectory that depicts – in color – his possible resurrection, all while the two are intercut from scene-to-scene, contextualizing and informing the other. I would love to have seen that movie. Indeed, someone should try making a biopic sometime that works in a “movie within a movie” construct (it could be really fascinating) because Born To Be Blue sure doesn’t. It cops out from that device almost as quickly as it’s established, with only occasional B&W callbacks thereafter to key memories.

What unfolds, then, is a more traditional approach (though not quite formulaic, thankfully) with scenes and dynamics that, to their credit, don’t feel as cliché as they probably should. Baker has fallen from his early career heights due to an insidious heroin addiction, but strives to go straight and mount a comeback. Complicating the effort: Baker gets his teeth knocked out – literally, not figuratively – by pushers he hasn’t paid.

A bit more of Baker’s post-assault commitment to relearn his trumpeting savvy – while toothless and bloody-mouthed – would’ve been compelling, especially from a psychological angle, but instead Born To Be Blue spends much of its time in all-too-familiar territory: a romance (one that didn’t happen, actually).

The strong woman in his corner is an idealized composite of the numerous women Baker caroused with. The role is more of a catalyst than character, despite the depth Carmen Ejogo brings to the part (she mined similar virtues as Coretta Scott King in Selma). One begins to wonder what Burdreau is more interested in: Baker’s artistic struggle or his love life.

Jazz and trumpet interludes weave throughout, and they make up for for a lot. Superbly played and filmed, they’re the movie’s elevating grace, working together with handsomely shot (and framed) images. So elegantly assembled, even the jump cuts are smooth. Shot in a digital format, use of 16mm film stock would’ve made the whole aesthetic that much better – but ultimately that’s a nitpick. Even in its modern pristine texture (or lack of texture, as the case may be), Steve Cosens’ cinematography is gorgeous.

Burdreau crafts a visual language befitting a jazz motif. From Baker’s breezy and groundbreaking West Coast style to his drift toward the mournful, it’s quietly hypnotic. One almost wishes for hushed Terrence Malick-styled ruminations to go with these moments, exploring Baker’s existential doubts from the inside, rather than the more standard “comeback” beats so common to the genre that stack this narrative. Being more literal ends up being less revealing.

Even so – the scenes that Born To Be Blue needs to land, it nails. If you’re a Baker fan (like me), you’re waiting for that “My Funny Valentine” moment. It comes at a crucial time, as it should, and it conjures Baker’s complex magic as artist and enigma. Even Hawke’s sincerely wrought vocals – while not on par with Chet’s – incarnate Baker’s melancholy. Ditto for the climactic use of “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”, a truly bittersweet coda to this man’s life and trials.

And that ending. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a triumphant moment feel so tragic. It’s a directorial masterstroke in-and-of itself, one in which Burdeau (who also builds to it with a subtle brilliance) even utilizes the heretofore conventional romance to maximize the scene’s heartbreaking subtext. It’s powerful.

Born To Be Blue isn’t always as immersive or intimate as it needs to be (or in the ways it needs to be), nor as daring, but every time it takes a risk – or, conversely, relaxes – it pays off, which is more often than not. It starts strong and ends strong, occasionally losing its way in-between. It always fights back though, endeavoring toward greatness, even as you’re left with a sense of what could’ve been, but wasn’t. Poetically enough, the same could be said of Baker.

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