(Canada/UK, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Robert Budreau
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie, Janet-Laine Green
There’s something very Tax Shelter Era-y about the co-Canadian biopic Born to Be Blue. This dramatization of American jazz sensation Chet Baker casts Hollywood star Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) as the music icon alongside American up-and-comer Carmen Ejogo (Selma) in a Sudbury-shot film that draws upon Canuck resources—natural, cultural, and financial—to make a film that bares a strong resemblance to Hollywood products. The difference between Born to Be Blue and Canuck commercial aspirations of the 1970s and 80s, however, is that it’s actually good.
A strong and commercially viable Canadian film is a rarity even today, so Born to Be Blue is a must-see for anyone who wants to participate in a conversation about where Canadian film is going. This Sudbury-shot film is comparable to this year’s Screenie winner Room, but with a few more CAVCO points as the new film from writer/director Robert Budreau (The Beautiful Somewhere) and producers Jennifer Jonas and Leonard Farlinger (Trigger, Gerontophilia). Throw in Callum Keith Rennie and old salt Stephen McHattie, both of whom continue their great streak of supporting work in recent Canadian films like Into the Forest and Big Muddy, respectively, and there’s a fair bit of Canadian content present in Born to Be Blue to justify the tax perks.
Technicalities and elements of perceived national character aside, this biopic about Chet Baker is simply a well done, superbly acted, and thoroughly enjoyable character study. It also takes a much tougher stance in its subject than most by-the-numbers biopics usually do. The film shows a portion of the musician’s life not during his glory years, but during his lows and his toughest moments, which arguably prove the measure of a man far more than some hit records do. It’s a familiar story, one that audiences have seen before with Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, but Hawke gamely bares Baker’s demons as his character realizes that his preferred high comes from a needle in his arm, rather than from a horn in his hands.
Born to Be Blue riffs on Baker’s act by letting the musician play himself in a film within a film around which Budreau frames the drama. The film features Baker starring in a drama about his own life as Budreau inventively takes a real life encounter between Baker and Dino de Laurentiis in which the Italian producer approached the musician to star in biopic. That film never happened, but Budreau ingeniously uses a fictional imagining of the project to let Baker reflect on his life, career, art, and addictions. DP Steve Cosens lenses the film beautifully as with an engaging contrast of colours and greyscale images. The film-within-a-film appears frequently as black-and-white interludes, which serve as a practical nod to classic cinema and as stylistic homage to the 1988 Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, as Baker plays himself alongside a fictions actress name Jane (Ejogo), who plays a loose take on Baker’s second wife Halema Alli. Their relationship explodes both onscreen and off, and playing wife to Chet Baker lets Jane see the full scope of his troubled womanising ways.
Much of the film follows a slightly true episode in which Baker had his teeth punched out by drug dealers and then struggled to reclaim his famous embouchure when doctors told him he’d never play again. The film therefore works as an underdog comeback story, a beautiful portrait of an icon who simply comes to life through the power of music, as Baker fights to find his voice through the crisp and jazzy toots of his trumpet. It’s also a battle of demons and desires as the conditions of Baker’s parole and treatment restrict his substance abuse, which itches at him through the searing pain that hammers across his face every time his presses the trumpet to his lips. Whereas Whiplash feels ridiculously overwrought with its implausibly blood-drenched drumsticks, Born to Be Blue realises the intensity of jazz without losing the nuance.
Hawke gives one of the best performances of his career as Baker, playing the broken-down trumpeter as he wrestles with his heroin addiction and tries to get clean with a comeback. Hawke’s Baker shows none of the charisma or swagger that one usually sees in the jazz stars of the era as he plays the man with the unvarnished truth of the live fast/die young recklessness of showbiz. Whenever Baker adopts some charm or plays it hip, Hawke ensures that the jazz icon reeks of desperation. Baker hides behind an act of put-upon coolness, a mask like the shades he wears both indoors and out.
Ejogo matches Hawke in a performance that notably improves upon the role of the supportive and long-suffering spouse whom biopics generally favour. Jane is a tough cookie, a woman without an ego who knows how hard it is to fight to pursue one’s passion. Ejogo’s compassionate and fiery counterpart to Hawke’s jazz junkie gives Born to Be Blue a sweltering harmony: it’s a bittersweet song about how much moxie it takes to achieve stardom and how easily—and pathetically—one can throw it all away. When the film culminates with Baker’s inevitable comeback performance in which he takes the stage and makes a choice between his needle and his horn, Hawke’s sweaty high and Ejogo’s devastating low hit very high notes for this warts-and-all tale. There’s no reason to sing the blues over this Canuck co-pro.
Born to Be Blue screens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox and it opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on April 1.