The traditional narrative arc of musician biopics is so established that a film can seem confusing when it tells a different story. This is why Born to Be Blue, the new biopic of Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, can seem shapeless and oddly paced. Where is the ‘rise, fall, and redemption’ drama that we know so well?
The impression that Born to Be Blue is a slow, misfiring version of Walk the Line or Ray is only heightened by the way it deals with some of the genre’s most well-worn subjects – drug abuse, spousal conflict, and the pressures of genius – and denies its audience easy resolutions.
But Robert Budreau’s film is valuable for the very way in which it turns the clichés inside out and finds new truth within them. Rather than focussing on the impossibly pretty younger Baker and his heady rise to top-tier jazz success, Born to Be Blue opens with him curled up on the floor of a jail cell, his beauty ruined by heroin addiction.
The film follows his attempts to rehabilitate himself and his career – something made harder when drug dealers knock his teeth out and ruin the ‘embouchure’ so crucial to a trumpet player. Ethan Hawke plays the part with the requisite mix of puppyish innocence and seedy ruin.
Hawke’s performance gives the film heart, but its edge comes
from its deconstruction of celebrity self-mythology. Flashbacks to Baker’s more
successful days are actually scenes from a profile-raising film he stars in as
himself. When he starts dating the actress who plays his wife (Carmen Ejogo),
it’s clear that he’s content to embrace a facsimile of the past.
Born to Be Blue presents itself as ‘semi-fictional’. In this way, it’s reminiscent of alt-biopic I’m Not There, which famously cast six different actors (including Cate Blanchett) as Bob Dylan. Budreau’s film is more restrained, however.
It’s closer in tone and effect to moody non-biopic Inside Llewyn Davis. Like the Coen brothers’ masterpiece – like both Llewyn and Baker – Born to Be Blue can be hard to love at times. But it’s a rich, unusual film that doesn’t sell short the complexity of its subject. You can’t ask for more.
|What||Born to be Blue film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
25 Jul 16 – 25 Sep 16, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more details|