SXSW Film Review: “Born To Be Blue”

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Ethan Hawke as ‘Chet Baker’ in Born To Be Blue. | Credit: IFC Films

The life and career of jazz musician Chet Baker could easily be turned into a mini-series. He had several defining eras to his career and they’re all fascinating in different ways. Canadian filmmaker Robert Budreau made a short film called “The Deaths Of Chet Baker” back in 2009 and has now returned with a full-length feature to focus on the man behind the music that stars Ethan Hawke in one of his best roles.

“Born To Be Blue” is interesting because it’s not a pure biopic. In fact, it uses the legend of Chet Baker to tell a troubled romance but plays a little fast and loose with the actual facts of his life. Budreau focuses mostly on a particularly rough period of time in the 1960s when the legendary trumpet player attempted to get clean and resurrect his career. After being arrested in Italy, he returned to the U.S. thanks to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who bailed him out and wanted him to star in a movie about his own life.

It’s fascinating to think that is ever something that could have existed, and that part of the story is actually true (we would have to wait a few more decades for Baker to return to the screen, in Bruce Weber’s documentary “Let’s Get Lost”). The fictional part comes into play where Baker falls in love with his co-star in the movie who is playing his ex-wife (“Selma” star Carmen Ejogo). Their romance is actually a construct – as Jane, she is a composite of many love interests from his life. This film within a film aspect finds us switching from black and white to color, blending past and present for a rich visual style.

The compulsions and determination of a junkie cannot be underestimated. After a violent attack by a drug dealer, Baker is left badly beaten and loses his front teeth. This experience left him unsure if he could ever play the trumpet again and the film contains a particularly difficult scene where he attempts to play his trumpet until blood pours out of it. After the attack, the movie is scrapped and he has to begin the long slow road to recovery and career resuscitation.

Ejogo is in the unenviable task of portraying a person who didn’t even exist, but she adds a much-needed softness to the picture, toning down the bleakness and reminding us that behind every tortured artist is a patient and loving partner. Hawke nails his performance and not only because of a physical resemblance to the man himself. It’s clear that the film is a labor of love for all involved, but training to mimic Baker’s playing and actually re-recording his vocals for certain scenes could not have been easy. The decision to not lip sync these tracks lend a raw authenticity and immediacy to these scenes. As Hawke himself said during the post-film Q&A at SXSW, “I was very nervous about imitation.” He also noted that the decision was made to avoid the “inherent things that are false about biopics.”

Hardcore fans of Chet Baker’s work may be puzzled by the artistic decisions made to deliver a stronger cinematic experience, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction could ever be.

Look for IFC Films to release the movie March 25 in select markets and nationwide on VOD.

Other screenings: 4 p.m. Tuesday at Stateside Theatre; 2 p.m. Friday at Alamo South Lamar


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