Sunday, April 17, 2016

Born to Be Blue (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Born to Be Blue

In Robert Budreau's film "Born to Be Blue," Chet Baker bears a resemblance to the Surrealist / Beat writer William Burroughs. The first shot features a tarantula emerging from a trumpet. Out of the abyss of night something creepy this way comes. Baker (Ethan Hawke) is swimming in an alternate world. His music and the drive to do it flawlessly was the singular thing keeping him in the world, insulated from the noise of life. The scene could be taken from Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

The film focuses on Chet Baker's struggle in the year 1966 and is punchily explicit in showing Baker's drug addiction. Yes, he was the Kerouac of the cool trumpet, but events were also murky with melancholy. The film portrays this state well and actor Ethan Hawke is terrific as the once handsome baby blue now showing an edge of the seedy side. Sumptuous clips based on Bruce Weber's documentary "Let's Get Lost" featuring a slick sharkskin version of Chet are interspersed with color vignettes of Baker lost and unhinged. This juxtaposition of black and white and color imagery makes the be-bop musician into a sort of Dorian Gray who romanticizes his black and gray past where all was smooth and porous with no need for methadone.

Baker is on the run from savage debtors who broke his melodious jaw. He takes off for Oklahoma with his fiancee (Carmen Ejogo), based on Halima Baker. Upon arriving Baker's father  (Stephen McHattie) who looks like a Grant Wood painting sarcastically belittles him. Baker has the love of a woman and his horn but he can't get work and the emptiness gnaws at him.

Baker records "My Funny Valentine" and the song is a hit because it is plain, raw and without finish. Ethan Hawke does well here, too. His off key voice has a breaking quality that shows the color brown, twined in desperation. Hawke is not so much Baker than the vibration of him.

Like the uncompromising "Leaving Las Vegas," this is an anxious and forceful look at the nature of addiction as much as it is a reflective portrait. Similar to alcohol in the aforementioned film, heroin reveals Chet Baker's reptilian urges and it turns his skin to leather. Heroin was an illusion containing the word "hero" within it---a capricious lover more fun than his Elaine, promising strength.

In the end, all Baker wanted was to crawl inside his trumpet: a silver womb. The tarry murk of the opiate known as heroin made his pursuit a slog and sadly barred his entrance.  "Born to Be Blue" may not be suited to all ears but it illustrates a man in a very real battle to describe what he observes with the element sound.

Chet Baker was stubborn and self destructive, yet through this drama, the musician yearned to go beyond his sugary standards in the hope of discovering the next cool color.

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