Written & Directed by Robert Budreau
It’s difficult to begin this review, as I’m not sure what all I have in common with the film in question, Born to Be Blue. Prior to seeing the film, I had no idea who Chet Baker was, though perhaps I should have. While I have an affinity for music, and even for jazz music when I hear it, I have no knowledge or ear for being able to tell what it good, what is bad, and what is average jazz music. It’s not the most popular genre in the music world anymore, as there are no more Miles Davis’, John Coltrane’s, Louis Armstrong’s, and no longer any Chet Baker’s (I am sure jazz enthusiasts could point me in the direction of modern day legends, perhaps like Wynton Marsalis). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting stories worth telling. Just look back at 2014’s Whiplash as a foray into the genre which is supremely made, acted and paced.
Born to Be Blue enters into jazz trumpet legend Chet Baker’s (Ethan Hawke) life in 1966, where he is rotting in an Italian jail cell, only to rescued by a Hollywood film director interested in making a movie about the famed musician’s fall from grace, starring the handsome Baker himself. During filming, Baker meets and falls in love with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), the actress who is portraying both his ex-wives in the film, which later gets cancelled. After wooing Jane into a first date, Baker is badly beaten by his drug dealers, knocking out all his teeth and threatening to end his music career. Determined to make a come back, Baker tries to get clean and works on his craft, coming back from hardly being able to play the trumpet, with help from Jane and his former manager Dick (Callum Keith Rennie),to play in front of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie at the famed jazz club Birdland.
The troubled, drug addicted waste of talent picture has been done before (re: Walk the Line, Ray, etc.), so what would make the same type of story, but with a far less famous figure interesting at all, let alone more interesting than either Ray Charles or Johnny Cash? Well, it would be impossible to begin to praise this film without first starting with praising Ethan Hawke for his delicate, layered and fairly restrained performance of Chet Baker. I’ll save the “hitting all the right notes” pun for his performance, but Hawke has perhaps never been better than here, inhabiting the troubled yet talent soul of Baker. Born to Be Blue and Chet Baker’s story is different. There is no heroic come back story where the musician gets clean, there is no tragic turn back to drugs which ends in the artists death. While these things do happen in Baker’s real life, Born to Be Blue is more fixated on telling the story writer/director Robert Budreau wants to tell than being accurate to Baker’s real life, and this is a benefit to the finished product.
Take Born to Be Blue with a grain of salt when trying to evaluate its historical accuracy. Jane isn’t a real person and much of this is fictionalized. But what Budreau is doing with this story is playing with a real story, and warping it to manage to tell a fascinating story about a musician, his addiction, and his girlfriend. Because the film is not a womb to tomb offering, I feel Budreau has no obligation to remain accurate, and he’s not. Born to Be Blue is inspired by the life of Chet Baker; it is not the life of Chet Baker. By making Carmen Ejogo’s Jane an amalgamation of Baker’s women, Budreau is able to more efficiently communicate both the charm and destructive nature of Baker in his romantic relationships. And Carmen Ejogo delivers on the premise. By avoiding the rise and fall of Baker and focusing on his intermediate comeback story, once again Budreau is able to efficiently package the character traits of Baker into a more taut story while avoiding a bloated film about a legendary artist. All these choices benefit the final result of Born to Be Blue and they made it easier to become invested in the journey, rendering the ending of the film perfectly abrasive in its revelation.
It goes without saying that the film’s aesthetics were wonderful as well. The soundtrack features wonderful tunes by Baker himself and the jazz mood is often fitting for the drama unfolding on screen. Hawke’s “My Funny Valentine” is a highlight both visually and audibly. The cinematography also struck me, often featuring Hawke by his lonesome on the screen, mirroring Baker’s own lonesome nature both when performing and otherwise because while Hawke subtly portrays Baker as a caring lover, he is also a jealous one, who isolates himself and his dreams and ambitions apart from Jane’s. This is definitely Ethan Hawke’s movie, start to finish, but Budreau creates a canvas on which Hawke is able to so beautifully draw Chet Baker into a character with talents and faults. Born to Be Blue’s honesty is sad and tragic, but unlike other films in this vein, it proves that sometimes people really are born to be blue.