Last year’s 40th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, based on my selections, felt more like a celebration of music than cinema. I never go in with an agenda; instead, I let the films speak to me. I let the titles and themes reach into my subconscious so they can guide me to some true north that will guarantee diverse coverage options through awards season and a few idiosyncratic choices that quicken my heartbeat along the way.
Without realizing it, my schedule looked like the track list for an eclectic mixtape. I documented my way through the Blues, messing around with Janis Joplin (Janis: Little Girl Blue from Academy Award nominee Amy Berg), then I hit the road with Keith Richards (Keith Richards: Under the Influence from Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville) and I finished up with Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple’s uplifting documentary about the battle waged by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings’ lead singer to overcome pancreatic cancer and resume her late and highly improbable ride through the music industry.
On the feature film side, I tuned into I Saw the Light, a routine biopic exploration into the brief life of country music icon Hank Williams, and then charged into the dark industry satire Kill Your Friends that bashed the brains out of the Britpop scene.
None of that prepared me for the final selection of my musical survey of TIFF ’15, writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue, which dared to blur the lines between fact and fiction, while reimagining the intimate details in the tragic life of Jazz great Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke).
Anyone with a casual familiarity of Jazz history knows the basic themes of his life. Baker was a West Coast trumpeter at odds with traditional Blues-based musicians from the Midwest and East Coast, like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. He struck a handsome pose, sang a bit, fell into the drug scene, landed in jail frequently, got his front teeth knocked out and had to completely relearn how to play his instrument. He was eventually found dead on the street outside his hotel room with drugs in his system.
Based on that brief sketch, Baker’s tale would definitely earn the rights to a title like Born To Be Blue, but rather than slavishly recounting these facts, Budreau, much like Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, charts a more improvisational course, weaving together a narrative that mimics the beats and rhythms of Jazz while also injecting a heady cinematic meta plot line for good measure.
Set primarily in the late 1960s, Blue follows Baker’s attempt at a comeback after troubles with drugs and incarceration. Grasping at any available lifeline, he signs on to a film — capitalizing on his movie-star good looks, playing himself — giving viewers a chance to see him relive his battles with his personal demons. On set, he begins to woo his co-star (Carmen Ejogo). Falling back on the old adage that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, Ejogo becomes the stand-in for a number of women who sought to prop up the Jazz legend, but it is a seemingly impossible task because Baker is trapped in a downward spiral. He can’t stay clean, which leads to the trouble that results in him getting his teeth knocked out, and then to more self-medication. Music takes a backseat to all of this drama, but there’s always the sense that it somehow anchors him.
Hawke, again much like Cheadle in his film, weaves a cool spell that is much deeper and more resonant than mere imitation. Hearing him sing “My Funny Valentine,” a standard linked to Baker, is like drifting back into that classic recording, to sink into the melancholy mood and inhale the smoke-filled atmosphere of some bygone club. It is fascinating to watch Hawke and come to appreciate his evolution as a performer.
To walk alongside him here as Baker is to dream a little dream for Baker. What would it have been like if he had been able to channel his own restlessness, to flit and flirt his way through music and cinema more successfully? Maybe the Blues he so tragically embodied might have only been a philosophical consideration. Of course, without the tragedy, the cinematic music of Born To Be Blue would have been far less worthy of the “Jazz” label. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) (R) Grade: B+