Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Born to be Blue - a second jazz biopic (QFT until Thursday 11 August)

Barely three months after the last semi-fictional jazz trumpeter biopic was projected onto the Queen’s Film Theatre screen, along comes another. Back in April, my review of Miles Ahead finished saying:

It’s a portrait of a talented musician who lived life with a wild abandon and who tried to control everybody around him while exhibiting a complete lack of self control. The virtuoso quality of his playing doesn’t redeem his violence, philandering, wife beating and drug taking. And none of those add to the enjoyment of the film …

The music really is very good though. But not enough to redeem the movie.

There are certainly similarities with Born to be Blue, which examines a period in Chet Baker’s life around 1966 as he recovered from being beaten up, losing his front teeth and having to learn to play the trumpet again while wearing dentures or else face life without jazz.

But Born to be Blue is a better film.

At the beginning of the movie, smooth talking yet insecure Baker (played brilliant by Ethan Hawke) is starring in an autobiographical film, recreating destructive scenes from his past. While claiming to be clean, his addiction to drugs is never far away.

Baker leads a much less glamorous lifestyle than fellow jazzman Miles Davis who describes him as “a great white hope”, introducing an aspect of racial stereotyping to the film that suggests Baker shouldn’t be a great jazz player. Heaped on top of that prejudice is his tendency to sing as well as play that makes him stand out from his contemporaries.

The philandering and wife beating of Davis’ story is absent; however the destructive personality is present right until the end of the film. Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, an actor from the failed biopic who becomes his counsellor, nurse and lover. She’s a synthetic character that merges together several women in his life. Her character swings from dispensing tough love to putting her life on hold and being taken in by Baker. The scenes back at his family home fill in some much-needed depth to the trumpeter’s backstory.

Like Miles Ahead, the music in Born to be Blue eclipses the talents of the cast. While the omnipresent soundtrack has the mild warm crackle of a record player, none of Baker’s original recordings seem to be included.

The film projected onto the big screens in cinemas contrasts with the performance of athletes in the Rio Olympics that are flickering on the small screens in living rooms. We know that taking drugs negates the celebration of sporting prowess, yet there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s apparently okay that Baker made his best music while injecting himself with heroin.

All in all, Born to be Blue is a better film than Miles Ahead. Certainly easier to watch I enjoyed it much more than expected. Yet it wouldn’t have been nearly so good if I hadn’t sat through the story of Miles Davis and been introduced to the US jazz scene in the 1960s.

For 97 minutes of great jazz woven around writer and director Robert Budreau’s fabricated tale of a very real and failed man, head along to the Queen’s Film Theatre and catch Born to be Blue before Thursday 11 August.

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