Born To Be Blue screened in the Plymouth Arts Centre from 30th Sept– 08 Oct 2016.
Music biopics can often be a mixed bag. Whilst they are almost always entertaining only a few are truly great. For every 24 Hour Party People you get The Doors. The former is a true one off, hilarious and plays fast and loose with the truth but proudly admits this. The latter is an interesting and occasionally enjoyable watch, but is a bit by-the-numbers as it goes through Jim Morrison’s life in chronological order.
Born To Be Blue on the other hand has been described as an ‘anti-biopic’ and tells the story of legendary Jazz musician, Chet Baker. Baker made it big in the 1950’s thanks to albums like Chet Baker Sings which includes the very famous version of ‘My Funny Valentine’. He was at the forefront of West Coast Jazz but his descent into heroin made him notorious and he was in and out of jail during the 1960’s.
Instead of a usual biopic which would start at his childhood, this film starts from Baker’s lowest point (at least in terms of the story) where he is in prison in Italy going cold turkey. There is a particularly arresting hallucination of a tarantula crawling out of a trumpet, which was just terrifying. Baker is then brought out of prison and cast in his own biopic. There are sequences of his ‘heyday’ shot in shades of blue that overtly glamorises that era of American history. It is on the set of the film where he meets the fictionalized actress Jane (who is playing his ex-wife in the film). A romance develops between the two and the rest of the film reveals more facets to Chet Baker’s life and career told through this relationship.
It is the performances from the two leads which elevate this film. Ethan Hawke is sensational as Baker and throughout the film he bears the burden of his past misgivings. His performance is very moving as he tries to make his musical comeback despite almost everyone going against him. Over the past few years Hawke has started to become of my favourite actors and seems to be starring in both big budget horror films like Sinister whilst still giving A-class performances in indie films such as this one and Boyhood. Carmen Ejogo is also a revelation as Jane and is more than a match for Ethan Hawke. Her character is a representation of the different women in Baker’s life and is very active in bringing him back from the brink of destruction. In essence she is our guide into the world of Chet Baker. We learn more and more about the Jazz legend through the growth of their relationship and it is this aspect that makes this biopic fresher and more open without the confines of re-telling real life events.
For a film about a jazz musician you don’t have to enjoy the genre to appreciate the film. I enjoy the odd bit of jazz but am not exactly a massive fan; however this film says less about jazz and more about the vice-like grip of drug addiction. Almost all of Baker’s past, present and future troubles are as a result of his addiction. Whether it is the fans who are trying to give him heroin or the torture of having to take methadone, it is a constant struggle for Baker. In addition, from a musical standpoint Chet Baker’s talent is second to none and despite his notorious behaviour a lot of characters still respect him as one of the greatest trumpet players to have ever lived. It makes it all the more tragic that his addiction ultimately killed him in 1988. This film is a fitting tribute to a jazz icon.