Sunday, 13 March 2016

BORN TO BE BLUE

Review by John Hodgins ( with Jane Hodgins)

With its opening notes arranged by the luminous jazz musician David Braid* the audience knew we were in for both a musical and artistic treat on the opening night of what will be a landmark Canadian film production, Born to be Blue. 

The acting, which should lead to an Oscar nomination for Ethan Hawke, established the gentle, perplexing, and maddening character of the lost soul who was trumpeter Chet Baker.

A slave to his musical genius and to heroin, Baker is examined through the prisms of his manager (Callum Keith Rennie) and his long-suffering black girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo). The nuances of the fifties and sixties are established with period artwork and the sweet jazz trumpet, piano, and bass of the era arranged by Braid and performed by his Toronto-based David Braid Quartet against the background of a black and white film canvas for retro-shots.

These production elements complement the gritty real-world scenes which lead up to the turning-point physical violence which left Chet Baker in a long period of recovery after a brutal beating by drug dealers to whom he owed money. His addiction and the paralyzing self-doubt, which the film portrays as stemming from his lonely upbringing in rural Oklahoma and his difficult relationship with a harsh father (Stephen McHattie), further complicate Baker's attempts at rehabilitation.

Baker’s musical talent struggles to re-emerge as he works harder than “any addict known” to his probation officer (Tony Nappo) to recover and re-establish his jazz-god image with the support of Dizzie Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) appears throughout the film as an antagonist who views Chet as a threat, which is another source of Baker's self-doubt.
 
Ethan Hawke
The supporting cast, largely Canadian (Stephen McHattie, Janet-Laine Green, Dan Lett, Kevin Hanchard, Katie Boland), sketch a strong and convincing human landscape against which Hawke inhabits the dark and deeply troubled world of the fantastically talented, sensitive, and infuriating addict who admits that he selfishly “loves to be high” more than he can find it in himself to respect those who help him or to love Jane, his stalwart, beautiful, and most sympathetic guardian angel/“funny Valentine.”

Baker’s ultimate choice to pursue his jazz accompanied by heroin use rather than to commit to his pregnant fiancĂ©e powerfully illustrates the profound reality of evil and destruction that has been the ruin of many in the world of professional music.

The most disappointing aspect of this opening night was the Q & A segment following the film with moderator, director Annie Bradley, interviewing writer/director Robert Budreau and producer Leonard Farlinger The many unsatisfying answers to banal and monochrome “inside the industry” questions eschewed audience participation despite the fact that the opening night audience was packed with jazz aficionados.

With bows to the dictatorship of relativism, Robert Budreau repeatedly and somewhat self-righteously defended the film as “non-judgmental” of Baker's downward spiral into drug abuse after a period of being clean. The facts of Baker's addiction ~ his self-destructive choices, his emotional abuse of Jane, his chronic breaking of trust with those around him ~ illustrate how very devastating and harmful Baker's life choices were to him and others.

Chet Baker after years of heroin addiction
We know what we see, despite the attempts of those sitting on stage in a politically correct bubble. Casting no aspersions on Baker's drug-addled behaviour, Bradley, Budreau, and Farlinger presented as a hip trio seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil. The attitude of those standing over the corpse seemed to say: “Hey, many creative geniuses are drug addicts; lets not moralize.”  This is not a helpful reflection on the lives brought to disaster as their humanity is wounded by the sweet stab of the needle –  friends and loved ones left to pick up the shards of ruined lives.

The film portrays Baker's decadent spiral into heroin addiction and cries out for the viewer to make a judgment without condemning the painful circumstances of this gifted musician on the road to becoming a jazz icon. The film itself deserves, and will receive, considerable attention because of the artistry of Ethan Hawke's portrayal of the tortured Baker and the brilliant jazz contributions of the David Braid Quartet featuring Braid on piano and Kevin Turcotte on trumpet. Budreau has praised the Canadian production crew who contributed generously and unstintingly to the film and has carved out some high ground for Canadian filmmakers.



* David Braid is a practising Catholic and noted Canadian Jazz Musician.
 

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