Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

Chet Baker, the epitome of West Coast cool, won the DownBeat Reader’s Poll as best trumpeter over Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown in 1955, the year after Chet Baker Sings introduced his unembellished, flat vocal stylings to the world. That same year Hollywood cast him in a B-movie war film, Hell’s Horizon, that might have made him a star had his heavy heroin habit not made that an impossibility. Five years later, he appeared as Chet l’americano in Howlers of the Dock, an early, little-known film by director Lucio Fulci who later gained fame with two giallo genre classics, including A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

The new Canadian film by Robert Budreau, Born To Be Blue, is a reimagining of Baker’s life starring Ethan Hawke. It juxtaposes black and white film images from a fictional biopic film-within-the-film starring Baker (sparked by the famous William Claxton mid-50s photographs of him that evoked James Dean), with a factually loose narrative history of the trumpeter’s life from 1966 to 1973, when he was relearning his embouchure and struggling to regain his trumpet-playing chops after losing his teeth in a beating related to his drug habit.

Ethan Hawke

Hawke brilliantly captures Baker’s spirit in a convincing portrait of a drug-addled, music-loving womanizer. He’s believable singing “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” a cappella in a bowling alley and covers the iconic “My Funny Valentine” in the studio respectably, his voice lower than Baker’s but just as naked, if not unblemished. Equally essential, however, is Toronto’s Kevin Turcotte, whose uncanny trumpet on the soundtrack makes Hawke’s portrayal believable. The versatile Turcotte also supplies the sound for Gillespie’s and Davis’ horns, in brief cameos in two Birdland scenes.

Pianist David Braid, who arranged much of the extensive music track and even wrote a tune inspired by “Cherokee” and “Salt Peanuts,” leads a solid quartet with Turcotte, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clarke. The music in the film is far more reality-based than the plot.

Born To Be Blue pulls no punches with Baker’s love of drugs. “Being a junkie is nobody’s fault,” he says early on. “It makes me happy; I love to get high.”

“Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note,” Baker says later, about the effect of heroin on his music making. “Playing on methadone’s like wearing a condom.”

A visit to his parents in Yale, Oklahoma reveals the sourness of Baker’s relationship with his father (Stephen McHattie -- who once played Baker himself in Budreau’s short film The Deaths of Chet Baker -- in a searing cameo). Carmen Ejogo (Baker’s wife in the film-within-the-film) stands in sympathetically for Baker’s many wives and girlfriends. An amiable seducer, Baker used women for self-gratification and as drug procurers. Simply put, he was a junkie who loved to make music, as Born To Be Blue, to its credit, makes clear.

Born To Be Blue is currently onscreen at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Sachal Jazz Ensemble and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra CREDIT Frank Stewart

Najaf Ali and his father, Rafiq Ahmed, are drummers in Lahore, for a thousand years the centre of music in Pakistan.  Like many musicians there, Najaf learned to play in childhood under the tutelage of his father. A coup by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 led to the installation of Sharia law and the banning of music throughout the country. A rich musical tradition was suddenly cut off from its audience. By the time the restrictions had eased, there was a serious disconnect with the general population and much of the younger generation knew nothing of the music at all.

In 2004, Izzat Majeed founded Sachal Studios to provide a place for traditional music in a nation that had rejected its musical roots. After convincing a number of master musicians to pick up their instruments again, some classical and folk recordings were released with little fanfare. But it was an experimental album fusing jazz and South Asian instruments brought them worldwide acclaim. Their version of Dave Brubeck’s classic, Take Five, rode the Internet all the way to Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. And Brubeck himself said: “This is the most interesting recording of Take Five that I’ve ever heard.” (Majeed had fallen for jazz as a schoolboy when he heard Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck live in Lahore as part of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Ambassadors program.)

Sachal Jazz Ensemble guitarist Asad Ali

Song of Lahore, the new documentary co-directed by Andy Schocken and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (who conceived it), begins smartly by focusing on the family connections among the members of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble (SJE), tracing their love of music and its roots while contextualizing their plight within the political and social history of Pakistan. Obaid-Chinoy, a double Oscar winner in the Short Documentary Film category -- including this year’s film about honour killings, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness -- is a socially conscious filmmaker with a journalistic background, who credits her time in Toronto from 2004 to 2015 with honing her craft.

Midway through this straightforward and informative documentary, Song of Lahore takes flight (literally and figuratively) when the SJE is invited by Marsalis to join him and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALCO) for a concert in New York City. The energy and freedom of Manhattan liberate the visitors but it’s during the rehearsals for the concert that the real charm of the film takes hold.

The implacable rhythmic foundation of the three drummers is a natural fit with Marsalis’ horn-heavy orchestra (“You start,” Marsalis says to them. “We need you to set the groove up.”).  There is some drama: East and West must find avenues of communication; a misfiring sitar player is replaced by a local New Yorker. But the climactic footage of Take Five, Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Blues and Ellington’s Limbo Jazz the next evening in the concert elevate the film to a higher plane. Baqar Abbas’ flute -- we saw him early in the film carving out a new instrument by hand and drilling it with perfectly placed holes -- can more than hold its own in a thrilling dialogue with JALCO’s flutist. Ballu Khan’s breathtaking tabla solos in New Orleans Blues are a standout. “When people are soulful and want to come together, then they do,” Marsalis says.

Rafiq Ahmed Bauji. Marsalis smiles as he repeats the name, delighting in its musicality. The musicality of Rafiq Ahmed’s dhol playing would later delight the Lincoln Center audience; as would Najat Ali’s naal.

Song of Lahore plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema March 4 to 10.

Serpent-Banner.jpgTheodor Koch-Grünberg, his guide, Manduca, and the shaman, Karamakate

 

An exotic, compelling journey up the headwaters of the Amazon with echoes of Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now, the third film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent, one of the nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, has opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Based on two real-life scientific expeditions, 30 years apart, in the first half of the 20th century, this gorgeous splash of black and white cinematography is a searing indictment of colonialism and the Catholic Church, whose priests enslaved Indigenous children orphaned as collateral damage of the ravenous greed of the Colombian rubber barons.

So authentic is the look of the film it’s as if we’re watching found footage beautifully restored.

The young Karamakate

The two river journeys cover the same territory and Guerra deftly cuts back and forth between them. The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (the German,Theodor Koch-Grünberg, and the American, Richard Evans Schultes) who travelled through the Colombian Amazon in search of the yakruna, a rare, sacred plant with psychedelic and curative powers that grows on rubber trees. Each was guided by the same Amazonian tribesman, Karamakate, and it is his perspective which steers our perceptions; the American followed the German’s trail via notebooks he had kept that were published after his death. Not to be outdone, the filmmaker was looking for the soul of the Amazon itself. It’s no understatement to say that he found some of its shards.

The stunning photography (can I repeat myself enough?) is underscored by the film’s sound design which uses natural sounds of water, birds, insects and the force of the river itself to buttress the images. An ambient drone or ominous synthesizer guides our senses from time to time; the occasional notes of traditional flute music add to the authenticity of the setting. The American’s prized possession is a phonograph on which he listens incongruously to Haydn’s Creation. Even Karamakate, now aged and disconnected from his shamanistic powers, finds it curiously inoffensive.

The older Karamakate and Richard Evans Schultes

At the film’s climax, the scientist’s  ingestion of the yakruna momentarily turns the black and white images to colour and the soundtrack explodes with a musical starburst.

Embrace of the Serpent is a road trip on water you’ll be glad to have taken, a spellbinding journey that doubles as forensic anthropology with a subtle, non-didactic ecological message.

Lady in the Van BannerMaggie Smith - Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The Lady in the Van, the engaging film by Nicholas Hytner, based on Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir of his 15-year relationship with an elderly woman who lived in a van parked beside his front garden in North London’s Camden Town, benefits from a lively performance by Maggie Smith as “The Lady.” Fractious though she may be, with an upper-class hauteur that makes her prickly sense of entitlement almost charming, it’s her backstory, once we eventually come to understand it, that engages our sympathy and tugs at our emotions. Bennett turned his book into a play starring Smith in 1999, so she clearly owns the role. Coincidentally, after The Madness of King George and The History Boys, it’s the third time Hytner has successfully directed a Bennett adaptation of a Bennett play.

Maggie Smith. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The movie opens with black and white footage of a young woman performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1. Even though Smith’s character, Mary Shepherd, cannot bear classical music -- she attacks a quartet of diverse street musicians playing at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony early on -- we discover that she had been a piano student of Alfred Cortot’s in France before WWII. And that she had her love of music literally beaten out of her -- as she was playing Chopin -- by nuns in the convent where she was a novice. Our first clue that music had something to do with Shepherd’s mysterious past, comes when she visits a seniors’ club and enjoys listening to a young woman perform Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90, No.3 D899. The pianist is Clare Hammond, who also stands in for the young Miss Shepherd in the several excerpts from the second and third movements of the Chopin concerto, playing with a sensitive poignancy in the Larghetto Romanze and a restrained delicacy in the Vivace Rondo.

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett (left) with director Nicholas Hytner. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Among the artistic types who populate Gloucester Crescent, the leafy street where most of the film takes place, is the widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, but it’s the eccentric outsider Bennett, who shares centre stage with Shepherd. He’s presented onscreen as two sides of himself, the knowing writer and the misfit who cycles around and engages his neighbours in small talk.

The writer side of the equation is constantly offering advice to his other half while commenting on the screen goings-on. It’s a clever device that bears fruit in the film’s final frames.

The formidable supporting cast -- Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay as the neighbours -- includes History Boys’ alumni James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett in brief cameos. But it’s Maggie Smith’s touching portrayal that stays with you long after.

The Lady in the Van opens at the Cineplex Odeon Varsity Cinema February 5 for an extended run.

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