Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Born to Be Blue

Chet Baker, 1953

Chet Baker with Miles Davis and Rolf Erickson, 1952

BORN TO BE BLUE                  B-              
USA  Great Britain  Canada  (97 mi)  2015  d:  Robert Budreau

So please forgive this helpless haze I’m in

There is a dearth of good films about legendary jazz musicians, where only Bertrand Tavernier’s ROUND MIDNIGHT (1986) and Clint Eastwood’s BIRD (1988) come to mind, as they all seem to get lost in overreaching melodramatic stories that overlook the obvious impact of race and drugs while refraining from telling the stories with any degree of authenticity or social realism.  This film is no different, unfortunately, as it never really places the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in its appropriate setting, shying away from the origins of the West Coast jazz scene in the late 40’s and 50’s, featuring the likes of white musicians Stan Getz, Jerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, and Art Pepper, which still remains a separate entity from the mecca that is New York, the home of more prominently known black musicians Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis.  This film doesn’t really get into that, though it’s at the heart of the untold story.  Instead, written and directed by Budreau, it reimagines Baker’s troubled life using a less interesting, more conventional romantic narrative surrounding the complexities of the man with a horn’s love interest, combining at least three wives and several girlfriends into a single character, turning this into a relatively safe interracial love story that surprisingly never even explores the racial aspects.  While confining the story to just a few years from the mid 60’s when Chet Baker disappeared from the music scene, it traces the origins to a lengthy incarceration in Italy for drug offenses that led to a severe beating over a drug debt that left his front teeth broken, requiring reconstructive surgery and dentures, where the time off was needed to relearn how to play with dentures.  During this down time, the film consolidates his life through frequent flashback sequences either in tinted, washed-out color or black and white imagery.  In the process the film fictionalizes his life, always a worrisome technique, as it willingly adheres to the Hollywood mold.    

What’s completely missing is the early 50’s success, where Baker’s good looks made him the “James Dean” of jazz, developing screaming female groupies while earning such adulation that he was voted the #1 jazz trumpeter by readers over the more widely acclaimed Miles Davis in consecutive polls by Downbeat magazine in 1953 and 1954, DownBeat Readers Poll Archive.  Instead, the film picks up in the middle of his career where he’s already famous, as he’s pulled out of an Italian prison to include him in a movie, a film within a film where art imitates life, as it’s on the set in a movie about his life (that was eventually abandoned by Dino de Laurentiis) that Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) meets the actress playing his wife Jane Azuka, Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in Selma (2014).  After displaying initial resistance, they go on a bowling date where she finally succumbs to his charms, as she literally melts in his arms when he sings her “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” Chet Baker - I've Never Been In Love Before - YouTube (4:28), which bookends their relationship and may as well be their theme song, as the utter sincerity of their commitment remains intricately connected to the song.  While she’s very much her own person, well-educated, a trained jazz pianist and vocalist to go along with her method acting skills, both have highly individualistic bohemian tendencies leftover from the Beat Generation movement of the 50’s, where their whirlwind interracial romance in many respects parallels the Jack Kerouac novel The Subterraneans, published immediately after On the Road in 1958.  Considering her intelligence, what’s missing is any commitment to social activism, as there is no reference whatsoever to the social unrest caused by the civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements that dominated the news during that era.   Instead there are flashback sequences to Baker playing at Birdland in New York, meeting a scowling young Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) who condescendedly dismisses his playing as “sweet, like candy,” asking Jane if this is her “Great White Hope,” before telling him to come back in a few years after he’s “lived a little,” words that he takes to heart, as he’s seen immediately afterwards mainlining heroin with a local girl who supposedly turns him on for the first time.  Ironically, it was Baker’s quick ascension in jazz circles, using techniques obviously inspired by Miles himself, that so angered Davis he was finally motivated to quit his heroin dependency.    

With an injured jazz player on the mend unable to play, the two play house for a good deal of the film, much of it spent in an isolated trailer situated on an idyllic cliff overlooking the ocean, like homesteaders in love, offering a romanticized and dreamlike quality to the film, where he could practice to the rhythms of the waves while attempting to regain some semblance of sanity and sobriety with the constant encouragement of Jane, who happens to believe that the feelings people have when they’re in love should be their natural state of being.  This elevated state of existence works in a vacuum, lovers in a secret hideaway far from the maddening world, where there’s a curious dichotomy taking place, as the lure of the bright lights are everpresent, even from a distance, as Baker thinks of nothing but making a comeback.  While the film is largely seen through her eyes, viewing Baker in all his glory, warts and all, where his single-minded obsession is returning to a life in music, it also doesn’t sugar coat his addictive habits, where he has to remain straight as a condition of his parole.  There’s an interesting side trip to his parent’s farm in Yale, Oklahoma where they spend some down time, reviving decades old personal feuds with his straight-laced father (Stephen McHattie), still bitter about how his drug arrests have dragged the family name through the mud.   With an ocean of personal dissent between them, the visit is quickly aborted, returning to their home on the beach where Baker starts performing in tiny venues, like a local pizza establishment, starting out a nobody, but quickly building up a following.  There are, of course, obstacles in his path, where his pesky parole officer (Tony Napo) hounds him to find a regular job, constantly threatening to send him back to prison, where in a melodramatic swoon, Baker actually suggests this kind of harassment is what led to the death of Billie Holiday.  Even if true, this is amateurishly handled and feels more like name dropping, diminishing the seriousness of the accusation to a near laughable moment.  Driven to get back into the recording business, he gets an opportunity to perform for a room full of influential producers, playing the intimately personal Chet Baker - My Funny Valentine YouTube (2:19), sung directly to Jane in one of the more poignant scenes of the film.  This sets the stage for a new chapter, giving him the opportunity to return to Birdland, where the world seemingly awaits. While the film is a well-acted, impressionistic attempt to explore the intimate side of a jazz legend, evoked through a diverse series of scenes at beaches, in café’s, apartments, recording studios, and even film sets, it typically uses the standard comeback story methodology, which feels diluted, where unfortunately there isn’t a single note heard by the original artist, instead his solos are replayed note for note in a similar style, which feels like an essential missing component.  Hawke does a credible job singing in the manner of Baker, but the film shortchanges the audience by leaving out any traces of the real thing.   

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