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domingo, 8 de novembro de 2015

Born to be Blue review: 'a lilting jazz biopic'

Ethan Hawke makes a riveting Chet Baker in this free-flowing biopic of the legendary trumpeter
Much like the lilting melodies that curl around it like cigarette smoke, Robert Budreau’s film about the life of the trumpet player Chet Baker, which screened earlier this week at the Tokyo Film Festival, is jazz, not gospel. 
Using a handful of key events during Baker’s life in the mid-1960s as inspiration, Budreau noodles and riffs around them, allowing the action to unspool in whichever direction feels natural. The result is a film that, despite its lack of interest in recreating Baker’s life down to the last cough and sneeze, feels truthful down to its bones – and another vital reminder, along with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, that biopics can reveal much about their subjects while only showing us a sliver of their lives.
Take the opening sequence, in which Baker (Ethan Hawke), the "James Dean of jazz", one of the form’s all-time great trumpet soloists, and a heroin addict until his death in 1988 – is lying on the floor of an Italian prison cell in the early 1960s. A tarantula crawls from the bell of his trumpet – not a good omen – and a Hollywood producer looms into shot and offers him a role in a movie.
Cut to Baker at New York's Birdland jazz club in 1954: the girls are gorgeous, the music is hot, the visuals are brooding black and white. After a barnstorming show, Baker tumbles into his dressing room with a groupie, who offers him heroin, and the pair collapse on the sofa, half-naked and aglow with glamour.
Then… cut again. The image jumps into colour, and the camera pulls back to reveal we’re on a film set.
“Was it really like this?” the girl asks. “Nah,” replies Baker. “If this were real there would be vomit everywhere.” The film in which the Hollywood producer cast him, you suddenly realise, was the story of his life, which you’re now watching – complete with a shiny shell of sugar-coating.
It’s a daring gambit from Budreau, immediately drawing attention to the fact that no biopic can, or perhaps even should, attempt to tell the whole truth about its subject. Agendas will always be at play, and everyone has a story to tell. Jane (Carmen Ejogo, Coretta Scott King in Selma), the actress playing Baker’s various girlfriends in the film, can’t comprehend why any of these women ever stayed with this philanderer and drug addict. “All I understand about them is they had big tits,” she adds sceptically, yanking two wads of padding out of her bra. 
Ethan Hawke as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in 'Born to be Blue'
Yet Jane herself is a blend of various girlfriends from Baker’s real life – in the film, she’s a device disguised as a person, while in the film-within-the-film, she’s a person playing a device. (As for the self-starring biopic, Dino De Laurentiis did indeed pitch it to Baker in 1960 while he was awaiting trial in Italy, although that was as far as things got.) But the film never becomes swamped by its layers: they’re just a playful acknowledgement that a degree of artistic shorthand is at work.

Besides, the film is blessed with two lead performances that are nigh-on unswampable, given by two actors with sexual chemistry to spare. Hawke expertly captures Baker’s angular fragility, both in his languidly crumpled face and his voice – and what a voice Hawke turns out to have, full of uninsistent, weather-beaten yearning. (The equally impressive trumpet playing is by Kevin Turcotte.)
But the invaluable Ejogo goes one better, turning the patient lover role into a kind of always-whirring empathy machine, whose notionally passive role makes dramatic sense of Baker’s various triumphs and slip-ups. 
Early in the film, Baker is badly beaten by his heroin dealer, and a large part of the plot follows the slow recuperation of his embouchure (the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of the instrument) and ego, while he simultaneously swaps heroin for methadone. But when it becomes clear the old magic is back, during a millpond-soft performance of My Funny Valentine, it’s Ejogo’s beautifully underplayed reactions that give the moment its power.
Born to be Blue runs into trouble when it stumbles into some of the biopic clichés it largely does well to avoid. A pained encounter between Chet and his unadmiring father (Stephen McHattie) at the family homestead feels a little dramatically slick despite its conspicuously rough-hewn edges, while a disastrous meeting with Jane’s parents (Eugene Clark, Barbara Eve Harris) crams months of inter-familial souring into a couple of preposterous minutes.
Low points like this remind you what Born to be Blue mostly isn’t – derivative, Oscar-baity, self-satisfied – and also what a minefield the biopic genre can be. Budreau, Hawke and Ejogo emerge a little dusty, but otherwise intact – and that counts as a win, for them, us, and Chet Baker alike.

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