By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
This has been a great year for off-kilter jazz biopics. Who could forget Don Cheadle’s directorial debut/flash of crazed brilliance Miles Ahead.
Everything about this image is A-grade.
Born to be Blue tries a very similar approach, telling the story of a legendary jazz-man through a largely fictionalized, highly stylized, epoch in his life where he’s perhaps at his most down. In this case it’s Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke), and he’s just gotten his teeth knocked out by his dealer and told he’ll never play the trumpet again. The love of a good woman (Carmen Ejogo) offers some hope of salvation, but is he even interested in saving his soul?
Director Robert Budreau begins his film in a really arresting manner- hang on through the artifice, it’s going somewhere. He and DP Steve Cosens orchestrate some hang ’em up on the wall shots of California beaches and misty New York skylines, just really top of the line cinematography, with some throwback black and white in places that helps vary the mood and time periods.
However, this film belongs to Hawke, who delivers a committed, chased by demons performance which may be his best. That, of course, is really saying something. He delves deeply into a character who has two great addictions- music and heroin- which are too simpatico to kick for long, and too inherent in his self-image and character to do altogether without. One begets the other.
People who’ve tried heroin really seem to like it.
Oh, and Hawke also does a bang-up job of singing several Baker songs, mostly A capella, which takes some chutzpah. Carmen Ejogo is also excellent as the woman who sticks by him through his nadir, teeth busted to the point he’s not supposed to ever be able to play again, out of cash and out of purpose. She’s got her own dreams, though, and despite knowing what she’s in for, her hope is heartbreaking.
All of this coalesces to an ending which is even better than the beginning. They’re both forced to make choices that the whole movie has been setting up, and the psychology and rationale behind these choices, even without knowing the rest of the story, make them seem inevitable, foreordained.
I know much of that plot description seems by the numbers, and despite the exhilarating open and close and stylistic flair, honestly it pretty much is. It executes those numbers so well that it almost doesn’t matter, but it takes awhile to really start to sing, so it can’t exactly be ignored.
Seems like I could work a “by the numbers” joke in here somewheres.
Born to be Blue is a compelling acting showcase for the never better Ethan Hawke, and a sneakily powerful examination of love and addiction to boot.
Born to be Blue (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever the parole officer shows up
Take a Drink: for drug-taking
Take a Drink: “methadone”
Take a Drink: for beaches
Do a Shot: for Ethan Hawke singing (just ’cause- he’s pretty good!)