Born to Be Blue Review – The Fictionalized Docu-Drama Hits All the Right Notes

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Born To Be Blue, from IFC Films and Sundance Selects, brings to the screen the tumultuous story of legendary trumpeter Chet Baker, who transformed Jazz and birthed West Coast Swing, and lived the majority of his life addicted to heroin.

Starring Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo, Born To Be Blue, was directed by Robert Budreau and also stars Callum Keith Rennie, Tony Nappo, Stephen McHattie, Janet-Laine Green, Dan Lett, with Kevin Hanchard as Dizzy Gillespie and Kedar Brown as Miles Davis.

Born to Be Blue opens in Luca, Italy 1966, with Baker, played by Ethan Hawke, strung out in an Italian prison kicking it cold turkey hallucinating tarantulas are crawling out of his horn when the guard opens the door. Hollywood wants to make his story into a movie and the director is ready to spring him.

The next scene is a flashback to the legendary Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, on 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue, in 1954 the seedy section where respectable girls wouldn’t be seen. Well on this night a white cat, from L.A., who could hit all the right notes, was showing up and so was everyone else.

Miles Davis, played by Kedar Brown, and Dizzy Gillespie, played by Kevin Hanchard, not accustomed to looking in the rear view for approaching traffic, had heard about this cat transforming Jazz and creating a sound called the West Coast Swing.

The talk of L.A., the place that turns dreams into reality, took Chet Baker and made him a celebrity. His gift, which he passionately devoted his life to pursuing as a craft, brought him to the attention of the music industry. He was a star.

Approval from Miles Davis for Chet, who came from Oklahoma and lived under the disapproving shadow of his father, played by Stephen McHattie his entire life, would be all he needed and Miles knew it.

The only way to derail this natural born talent was to introduce him to the killer, Heroin. Miles knew Baker had an eye for lovely brown girls so he sent his messenger to him with a little surprise and after this first hit, he was addicted and remained an addict for the rest of his life.

Baker met the one of the loves of his life, Jane played by Carmen Ejogo, a struggling actress booked for the part of Elaine, Baker’s first wife. Soon the two became romantically involved and he cleaned up, living a co-dependent life on Jane’s strength to recover.

The absence of successes in her own life, caused her to worked tirelessly enabling Baker. She ran interference with the Probation Officer, she was his lover, caregiver, dreamer, manager, secretary, direction, hope. She is the driving force behind him getting his life back. Her conditions were simple; stay clean. To him, those conditions were as impossible as a leopard changing its spots.

Born To Be Blue is genuinely a captivating film. Ethan Hawke handles the role very well. His transitions are seamless.

Born to be Blue is not the façade, flash and dash, the film gets behind the scenes into the grit. The drug debt collectors, the heroin usage, how he goes from A-list to outcast from celebrity payroll to pumping gas.

Baker seemed to be able to stay strong, and clean, in the tough lean times and he couldn't handle the pressure of celebrity, the demons from within and the world in the good times.

The recreations of the studio sessions were very well done and as a Jazz connoisseur, the music was very nice. The film is punctuated throughout with musical scatting, in the early scenes with Dizzy and Miles, after Baker’s initial appearance and again at the end. Steamy.

The horn was everything to Chet; it was an extension of himself. Heroin was the only lover he allowed to come between himself and the horn.  Baker was a junkie; he lived a codependent clean for some time, got the music back, and the pressure drove him right back to the junk.

After his comeback he became one of the rare ones to have the second shot and he took it.

Born to be Blue is playing in selected cities and expanding soon. It is a solid independent film. Shocking, well done, strong performances. Born to be Blue lays it out and explicitly reveals the extent jealousy or fear will do when it perceives change.

Not to be missed, Born to be Blue hits all the right notes.

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