Born to Be Blue, the new “biopic” starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker – one of the most gifted jazz musicians of his time, consumed on equal fronts by music, sex, and heroin – should be commended for its unique approach to the “troubled-musician-rise-and-fall” formula plaguing these films lately. Music biopics are stamped out on a conveyor belt these days, hitting all the familiar beats through a painfully structured narrative (I Saw the Light being the most recent offender). Born to Be Blue hits those familiar notes, but it also informs us about the nature of its subject in the way it stops and starts and, eventually, flows through the doomed comeback trail of Baker.
The opening shows a young, hopeful Chet Baker strolling into the Birdland Music Hall in New York City, 1954. Bathed in a soft, melodramatic black and white, Baker proceeds to kill it on stage and take home one of the women intoxicated by his work. His wife arrives just as Baker is pushing off into a heroin dose, loses her mind, and suddenly the scene stops; and we are on a movie set. A director says cut, and Chet Baker is in the middle of playing himself for a biography of his life (which was actually planned, but never really filmed). He’s older than he was when he was fending off female fans outside Birdland, and more beaten down by life. The opaque black and white is replaced by sharp yellows and browns. It’s a jarring switch, but once we ease into this version of Chet Baker, pestering his closest friends, romancing his costar, fighting off that stinging urge for smack, the story sings.
Baker and his costar Jane (Elaine, in the biopic inside the biopic) fall in love almost instinctively, and it’s a surprisingly passionate affair anchoring the center of Born to Be Blue. There was no Jane in real life, but I suspect this Jane is a combination of many women who drifted in and out of love with Baker, and Carmen Ejogo is hypnotic and steadfast in the role. No matter how bad things get for Chet – be it the assault and broken teeth, the painful false replacements, the fight back to the top of the jazz game, or the persistent teetering on the edge of addiction – Jane is by his side.
And so the film drifts in and out of moments in Baker’s attempted comeback, moving like a jazz number itself. The opening scene frees up the rest of the story, almost informing us “not all of this you’re about to see is 100% real.” It allows Hawke to capture moods and emotions of Baker without having to move just the right way or wear the exact shirt Baker wore. There’s a great deal of riffing going on in the film and it gives everything a more organic, stream of consciousness vibe. That being said, as it does flow freely through memories of the past, it manages to hit those familiar biopic notes. They’re probably unavoidable sometimes, so at least the film manages to push itself outside the boundaries of what is expected. And it’s Ethan Hawke who manages to elevate everything.
Hawke has, for some time, been the overlooked great of an entire generation of Gen X’ers. His mere presence enhances the commercial genre dreck he’s done over the years (and some brilliant genre work, lest we forget), and then when he reaches deep for his more “art house” fare, there are few more compelling and soulful. Chet Baker was consumed with those things that made him feel love, be it drugs or women or jazz, and Hawke pulls all those together under an umbrella of desire that carries little twitches and changes depending on what’s pushing the musician at any given time. He does his own singing, as throaty and frail as Baker’s was, and learned a half dozen or so of Baker’s songs to play in the film. It’s serene casting, and its some of the strongest work in Hawke’s career.
Robert Budreau directs Born to Be Blue on just the right tempo. This whole thing sings like Baker’s trumpet, and sometimes hits a few faulty notes like the broken-down version of Baker. Never enough to derail the performances from both Hawke and Ejogo. This is a picture about feel, not facts, and would have had no purpose for existing had it fallen into the same trap most music biopics do. Miles Ahead, the new Don Cheadle/Miles Davis biopic, tries the same thing and appears to succeed in many of the same ways as Budreau’s film. Chet Baker wasn’t a complicated man – he was a musician and a hopeless addict of a number of things – but Hawke and Budreau pull empathy from his aching bones and create something compelling.