You could say that Born to Be Blue is a love triangle — and the white girl wins.
Anyone familiar with the life story of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker will probably know that the “girl” in question isn’t actually a girl. It’s the snowy heroin he got hooked on in the 1950s, and never completely escaped until he tumbled from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988.
Starring Ethan Hawke as Baker, writer-director-producer Robert Budreau’s drama introduces us to the musician coming to on an Italian jail-cell floor, hallucinating a tarantula creeping out of the trumpet horn inches from his face. Next, we’re in a black-and-white montage of squealing females lined up to see him at New York’s Birdland in 1954. Then it gets even more interesting as Baker sneaks home with a pretty groupie, who shoots him up with “horse” for the first time — shortly before his wife Elaine (Carmen Ejogo) storms in and kicks out the drug-wielding interloper.
“You did this because of Miles?” Elaine asks, outraged, referring to the stony response Chet got earlier that night from Miles Davis after his Birdland performance.
Then, their conversation goes a little wonky. The monochrome scene clicks into color and someone yells, “Cut.” We’re on a film set. Now we understand why Hawke doesn’t look much like the baby-faced, broken angel of the 1950s. It’s actually 1966, and Chet is trying to star in a movie about his own life. But when he’s not “playing” Chet Baker, he’s frail, ravaged, without direction. And always high.
The actress playing Elaine is actually named Jane. She’s a little stymied by the challenge of playing “the women of Chet Baker” for this film project. Frankly, she tells him, “I don’t understand why these women would stay with you.” But naturally, she’s the next one who finds herself in his orbit. The film project gets canceled, Baker gets his front teeth kicked out, and Born to Be Blue starts to gets bogged down (a little) with standard biopic tropes.
That’s a shame following the terrific series of perceptual trapdoors the movie kicks off with, but it’s still a compelling look at one of jazz’s most beautiful losers (in a very crowded category). Watching Blue, it’s easy, like Jane, to get exhausted, waiting to see how Baker will sabotage the next great opportunity that comes his way or say the exact wrong thing as he tries to go clean.
Hawke is very good here. I’m not his biggest fan, but he gets Baker’s distinctive, whispery voice, whether speaking or singing. Actor Callum Keith Rennie as Chet’s long-suffering manager-producer Dick Bock is a welcome voice of tough love. But for me, the movie’s secret weapon is Ejogo. She gives a limpid, subtle, sexy performance that suggests how powerful addiction can be. It seems impossible that anyone would choose a drug over her, but history tells us otherwise.
Take Me to the River, also opening, has a couple of good stories percolating inside it, but they wind up competing. In writer-director-producer Matt Sobel’s indy drama, 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller) travels from California with his parents Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff) to Nebraska for a sprawling family reunion with his mom’s folks. He’s gay, and he thinks the extended clan should know. But his mother nixes the idea: “We don’t need to make a real deal out of it.”
She doesn’t want to cause ripples, and it’s soon clear why. Ryder’s lanky, cowboy-hatted uncles toss horseshoes in the yard, and a couple of corn-fed, twin teenage boys mock Ryder’s short red shorts and yellow sunglasses. His 9-year-old cousin Molly (Ursula Parker of Louie, terrific in a very tricky role) asks Ryder, agog, “Are you really from California?”
Obviously crushing on her cuz, Molly coerces Ryder to go with her to explore the barn — which she soon runs from, screaming, a bloodstain on the front of her dress. She’s followed by Ryder, who is all, “Whuuuh?” He claims she just suddenly went hysterical. But Molly’s dad, and Cindy’s brother, Keith (Josh Hamilton) immediately suspects the worst.
Again, Ryder invokes the honesty clause with his mom: Clear up this misunderstanding and tell Uncle Keith I’m gay. And again, she says no. To her way of thinking, in the heartland being gay could be considered as bad as, or even worse than, being a straight pedophile.
Here’s where the movie starts to go interestingly, frustratingly weird. Rather than stand up for her son, Cindy encourages him to lay low and even bed down in an abandoned house at a distance from her own mother’s homestead. When someone paints slurs on their car, she cheerfully washes the graffiti off.
At its best, and strangest, the movie plays like a black comedy of dysfunction. Why all the evasion? The script answers that by the end, but in a way that’s not especially satisfying. It makes you rethink everything you’ve seen previously, but not in a way that makes things stack up, psychologically — at least for me anyway.
Born to Be Blue. With Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie. Written and directed by Robert Budreau. Rated R. 97 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and Lefont Sandy Springs.
Take Me to the River. With Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Ursula Parker. Written and directed by Matt Sobel. Unrated. 84 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.