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Born to Be Blue

Theatrical Review


IFC Films; 98 minutes

Director: Robert Budreau


Written by on March 23, 2016 




I played jazz trumpet growing up in Oklahoma, so Chet Baker’s somber swing always brought our ensemble back to earth when Dizzy Gillespie’s flying fingers sent us noodling in quick cacophony. We thought Baker was the romantic trumpeter, the kind you’d play when you wanted to impress a date — and whose pretty-boy face on the album cover inspired many of us to play in front of mirrors — and only later learned that his muse was heroin. Robert Budreau‘s Born To Be Blue turns Baker’s darkest professional and personal period into a sepia weepy. Though Ethan Hawke aches pathetically as Baker, containing the overwhelming ego any musician cultivates beneath his whispery smirk, he’s let down by this film’s monotony.

Born to Be Blue

Born To Be Blue summarizes the career of a cyclical drug addict as a comeback story. Baker, bailed from prison, was all set for a Hollywood biopic, playing himself until his drug creditors bashed out his front teeth in front of his date, Jane (Carmen Ejogo, who also plays his wife in flashbacks). With the movie scrapped, Baker must relearn the trumpet while keeping clean. By abandoning the previous structural flourishes of a biopic inside a biopic, we settle into a rut worn deep and worn well by the parodic Walk Hard.

Ejogo settles into the thankless role of supporting a typically written troubled genius. Her moments of spunk quickly quashed, the character is more written for single tears and sideline cheering. Hawke, sharp-cut and desperate, adds more to his character the less he does, his sullen silences intuitively translating to brooding slow tracks. His trumpet mimicry is more than passable, nailing Baker’s stoic style and multiple embouchures, and his singing has the same timid beauty. Yet the film seems determined to deny us anything interesting with his character.

born_to_be_blue

The script goes broad in a big way, seeming to copy entire passages from Difficult Men for Dummies. Reveals are spelled-out and every line of dialogue drowns itself in dripping earnestness. Black-and-white flashbacks eat up time, but not much else. Baker doesn’t get along with dads, police officers, or the laughably stand-offish Miles Davis for reasons too vague to matter. Aimless hostility comes from all angles, making you think of the old phrase, “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” And yet everyone keeps giving him chances. They always talk about how hard he works, but the movie shows us the same practicing montages that could exchange the trumpet for a violin, a paintbrush, or boxing gloves and be plagiaristic.

No matter the vista or the subject matter, the film looks the same. A cliffside van, a recording studio, and a pizza parlor retain the same cheap visual timbre: dried-out, clean, picturesque. Juxtaposing an addictive struggle with a detached world works, but there first has to be a struggle. A return trip home to Yale, Oklahoma has all of the makings of drama and none of the chops. That’s what most of this film feels like: empty wind through a trumpet — no tone, just air.

Born to Be Blue opens on Friday, March 25.


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