BORN TO BE BLUE: 3 STARS. “a stylish new drama starring Ethan Hawke.”
Trumpet player Chet Baker is no stranger to the big screen. He was the subject of “Let’s Get Lost,” a 1988 documentary by Bruce Webber, acted in movies with exciting names like “Howlers of the Dock” and “Hell’s Horizon” and his sublime playing haunts the soundtracks of everything from “The Sixth Sense” to “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” He’s back on the big screen as the subject of “Born to be Blue,” a stylish new drama starring Ethan Hawke.
Writer-director Robert Budreau begins the story during a valley in Baker’s life. Consumed by heroin, a beating by a drug dealer leaves him broken and barely able to play. To recuperate he and soul mate Jane (Carmen Ejogo) head to Baker’s childhood Oklahoma home where his antagonistic father (Stephen McHattie) sheds some light on why the musician behaves the way he does.
Later, on the comeback trail, Chet and Jane live in a van in Los Angeles as the trumpeter tries to convince his old producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie) to work together again. As he regains his chops and confidence the question remains, will he be able to embrace the change or will fall back into his old bad habits?
It’s a matter of historical record how Baker’s life ended, but “Born to be Blue” isn’t particularly interested in the facts. Jane is a composite figure of several of Baker’s girlfriends and wives and some of the events portrayed as fact are in debate. Instead the movie is more interested in giving the viewer a feel for Baker’s life and struggle.
Hawke shares Baker’s rough-hewn good looks and does a credible job of imitating the fragile beauty of his singing voice. More importantly he apes the addict’s temperament. Charming one minute, petulant and or incoherent the next, he’s a talented train wreck; a man whose tragic life experience fed his art. Unsure which of his proclivities are his angels and which are his devils, he’s a conflicted guy who tries to do well by those around him but often fails. It’s a compelling, if not uncommon, music bio story and Hawke embodies it.
Also compelling is Ejogo as Jane in what could have been simply a supportive wife role. She has great chemistry with Hawke and sparks fly in her character’s relationship with Baker. The heart of the film is their connection and sometimes the fireworks that fly between them are exciting, sometimes heartbreaking.
“Born to be Blue” suffers from occasional melodrama—Kedar Brown plays Miles Davis as a bebop caricature—but nails the sense of melancholy that characterised Baker’s best work.