Writer-director Robert Budreau takes a stylised approach to this biopic of the legendary jazz artist Chet Baker, combining the achingly soulful music with an equally resonant performance from Ethan Hawke. Sometimes, the film's artistic flourishes seem to strain to cover up the usual narrative of a musical artist's life. But Baker's story has a striking emotional layer to it that holds the attention. And by focussing on a pivotal period in his life, Budreau draws out some lovely themes.
It opens in 1966 Los Angeles, where Chet is starring in a movie about his life. One actress, Jane (Carmen Ejogo), is playing all of the women he loved, and of course he's now pursuing her as well. There's also the problem that he's not quite sure if he's still a heroin junkie or if he's just playing himself when he was one. Then he gets in a street fight in which thugs knock out his front teeth, and everyone tells him he will never play his trumpet again. But he tenaciously sets out to regain his embouchure, even as his parole officer (Tony Nappo) refuses to give him a break. He decides to take Jane to visit his parents (Stephen McHattie and Janet-Laine Green) back home in Oklahoma, and rebuild his life from there. Then back in California, he approaches his music producer friend Dick (Callum Keith Rennie) to help him make a comeback.
Hawke brings a terrific earthy charm to the role, conveying Baker's effortless musical gifts as well as his inner steeliness in the face of injury and addiction. The darker sides of Baker's personality simmer in the background, increasing his allure. And Ejogo is terrific opposite him. Jane is a woman who sees everything that Baker is, and she knows that she has limits to what she will let him get away with. It's easy for the audience to root for them to succeed as a couple, even though every other musical biopic has told us that a happy ever after probably isn't on the cards.
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