Film Review: Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances yet as the late Chet Baker

This review was originally published as part of our coverage for the South by Southwest Film Festival 2016.

sxsw-film-2016What’s contentious about most musical biopics is that they’re not very good. More often than not, the films tend to dissolve into hero worship, grasping at too many straws and lacking any semblance of humanity. Larger-than-life performances, mostly searching for that Oscar gold, crudely outshine any natural depth that would allow for genuine characterization. While fanatical filmmakers and screenwriters over-deliver on a paint-by-numbers biography, as if they’re self-appointed schoolteachers at a local music academy, when really what they should be doing is telling one excellent story. Because, let’s not forget, one’s entire life isn’t a story, it’s a saga, a collection of tales that may or may not prove cohesive. That’s why it’s such a relief to see more and more of these films offer slices of life — chapters, if you will — that allow for a proper beginning, middle, and end.

Add Robert Budreau’s intimate snapshot of Chet Baker, Born to Be Blue, to the ever-evolving shortlist. Billed as an “anti-biopic” and featuring the talents of the incomparable Ethan Hawke, the filmmaker makes clever use of the tired medium by zeroing in on a particularly difficult time in the late jazz pioneer’s life and shaking it up with some historical liberties. It’s the late ’60s and Baker’s fame and fortune has all but fallen by the wayside in the wake of his crippling heroin addiction. He also can’t play anymore, thanks to a horrifying run-in with some not-so-fellow acquaintances who shatter his front teeth, ruining his embouchure. But he won’t stop. He can’t stop. He has to keep playing. It’s all that he knows how to do. It’s all he wants to do. And it’s that tortured existential struggle that turns the film into something more than a rote redemption tale.

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Well, that’s not exactly true. Part of the appeal to this film, outside of Hawke’s captivating performance, is how Budreau wires the comeback narrative with a little bit of surrealist non-fiction. He does this by embellishing a few facts of his life, namely how the late producer Dino De Laurentiis once offered Baker a chance to star in his own biopic. That never came to fruition, or even went into production, but Born to Be Blue takes that scrap of trivia and rewrites history a little, which is how the film wields a love story and manages to both use and subvert the tropes of a traditional biopic. The former arrives when Baker falls for the young actress (Carmen Ejogo) playing his wife in the film, while the latter comes into play as Baker’s own memories are retold with the black and white footage from said biopic. It’s a little confusing on paper, sure, but Budreau executes the ideas with ease.

It’s a move that might aggravate the more puritanical cinephiles, but as Hawke argued following its premiere at South by Southwest, all biopics are works of fiction. He’s not wrong. Even the films that attempt to drill and paint in every excruciating detail are at a fault to some point when it comes to the facts and truths. By acknowledging and embracing that, Born to Be Blue avoids toeing any line for the sake of historical preservation and is able to focus, instead, on crafting an engaging story. Granted, there’s a strong argument to be made both for and against that artistic license, but it’s a smart decision, especially since the film’s not really all that interested in telling Baker’s life story. It’s more invested in capturing the spirit of the icon, specifically how he was stuck in a tragic love triangle between his relationships, his addiction, and his own genius.

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In one of his strongest turns to date, Hawke bottles up that three-way struggle with an organic performance that sweats with pathos, energy, and humor. There’s a rhythm to his actions that makes us believe he’s always been this guy, from the way he charms Ejogo earlier on through puffs of smoke to how he tearfully confesses his struggles to his producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie) at the end. It would be so easy to see Hawke as Hawke, especially since we’ve seen him on the stage for a film or two, but that’s not the case at all. He’s Baker without trying to be Baker, offering up a human being as opposed to a historical character, a difference that feels quite in tune with the psychology of jazz. But, it’s also a very lonely performance: Hawke spends so much time roaming the streets alone or losing himself into his iconic trumpet, and there’s a beauty to that.

Though much of that beauty stems from Budreau’s picturesque direction. For 97 minutes, Baker’s journey takes us from the sunny warmth of coastal California to the rustic confines of wintry Oklahoma to the monochrome empire of a dreary New York City, and it’s all captured with signature colors and definitions. Midway through the film, Hawke’s Baker and Ejogo’s Elaine embrace each other in the Pacific Ocean, and it’s all confined to one long tracking shot that capitalizes on all of the natural light that the West Coast can offer — it’s just stunning. Similar feelings surface later when Baker starts performing again, specifically when he sings “My Funny Valentine” to a room full of suits. It’s a stuffy environment that Budreau turns romantic by sticking close to Hawke, absorbing the natural energy that the genre insists upon. Again, it helps that Hawke is so damn convincing.

Interview: Born to Be Chet Baker: Robert Budreau on His Funny Valentine

Is there anything more important than that? As Miles Davis once argued, “The thing to judge in any jazz artist is, does the man project and does he have ideas.” That’s a terrifying prospect to consider, the idea that you can’t just go out there and perform, you have to go out there and give yourself, and that self better be fucking worth it. Budreau and Hawke wrestle with that theme and conquer it with a rousing climax that should get under the skin of anyone who’s ever felt passionate about anything. By then, it’s less about Baker and more about what Baker represented: an artist whose love for the craft superseded any and all facets of life. As such, Born to Be Blue serves as an honest and heartfelt ode to not only Chet Baker, but those who revel in the occasional highs and neverending lows that overwhelm the pursuit of art.

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