Friday, April 15, 2016

Ethan Hawke excels as Chet Baker

A jazzy rendition of a musician's life.

Jazz musician and singer Chet Baker was 58 when he passed away in 1988. He was high, and apparently fell out of the window of his Paris hotel. Baker's tumultuous life helped invent what has become a nearly cliched profile: A hard-living, heroin-addicted musician can't seem to separate self-expression from self-destruction.

Director Robert Budreau's Born to Be Blue tries to freshen the story by mixing scenes of a movie Baker is making about himself (the film never happened) with scenes that reflect Baker's artistically rich but dissolute life.

I don't know enough about Baker's life to tell you how close Budreau has gotten in terms of detail, but he certainly gives us a strong feeling for the kind of person Baker was, a task that receives a mighty boost Ethan Hawke's appropriately elusive performance as Baker.

Hawke plays Baker as a trumpet player of wavering confidence and staggering vulnerabilities, a man who was difficult for others to grasp. Maybe he wanted it that way.

Baker, of course, did plenty of hard living, and his approach to women wasn't exactly monastic. Budreau focuses on one woman.

Baker begins a relationship with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress he meets while shooting the movie about his life. Ejogo, who played Loretta Scott King in Selma, is a wonder as the woman who tolerates Baker's addiction and immaturity -- until she no longer can.

The movie also suggests the tension between black and white musicians that sometimes surfaced in the jazz world. Early on, Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) refuses to acknowledge Baker as anything more than a musician who plays "sweet." Davis didn't mean it as a compliment.

But if Baker's music was sweet, whatever was happening inside his head wasn't quite so placid: Baker founders throughout much of Born to Be Blue.

At one point, he has his front teeth knocked out by a drug dealer to whom he owes money: He then must learn to learn to play his trumpet with false teeth, no easy task.

Hawke hits all the right notes, and he and Ejogo play a tipsy, sometimes fractious duet in a semi-successful movie whose best moments stand out like memorable solos in a long and somewhat scattered set.

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