Thursday, April 21, 2016

Flawless music by a flawed man

Born to Be Blue, opening Friday at The Maple Theater, is a take on part of the life of famed trumpeter and exponent of the West Coast jazz sound Chet Baker. There’s a lot of great and seminal jazz that’s been made over the decades but Baker’s sound is among the most sublimely cool. But his career was only partly successful as a result to his own human failings, largely because of his heroin addiction. Nevertheless, like a great artist little recognized in his own time, a mythology has developed around Baker since his death in 1988. That’s because of a number of things. His music, of course, but also his physicality. His swept back hair and chiseled face made him a jazz version of James Dean or Jack Kerouac. And his failings and rough edges, including spending time in jail, add to the romantic bad boy and distressed image. In Born to Be Blue, directed by Canadian Robert Budreau (much of the picture is filmed in Sudbury), Ethan Hawke makes a rather ideal stand-in for Baker and pulls off the character quite well, particularly given all the close-up shots portraying pained expressions, mental confusion, and Baker’s semi-articulateness and even at times dumbness. The film really revolves around a central incident, where Baker was beaten and lost his ability to play the trumpet, and his subsequent attempt at a comeback. Of course drugs play a central role as Baker seeks to keep the demons at arm’s length. Carmen Ejugo (who played Coretta Scott King in Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2015)) as his lover is almost flawless in conveying warmth, caring and an ethical counterpoint to Baker’s moral weaknesses. I’m not a big fan of biopics but I don’t see too many things wrong with this one. Yes, I would have preferred the film focussed more on Baker’s overall career.  He was hugely successful in the 1950s and then in the 70s and 80s, despite his addiction. But I understand a film needs a fulcrum point to build a concise story around so what in fact was the defining event in the musician’s life is the focus here. Yes, Hawke does perform a few of the songs himself but most of the trumpet is the off-camera work of Kevin Turcotte. Seeing that there’s another jazz biopic opening in the city this weekend, Miles Ahead starring and directed by Don Cheadle, the two films would make a great themed double bill.

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