There is a trio of biopics about troubled musicians out right now, and what’s fascinating is how they are all presented differently. One throws cliché out the window completely, another goes the standard by-the-numbers biopic approach, and finally there’s Robert Budreau’s “Born to be Blue”, a brassy yet soft-spoken biopic on great jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker. Played by Ethan Hawke in perhaps the strongest lead performance of his career, the semi-fictional film is as smooth as the man dubbed one of the leaders of the “West Coast cool” style of jazz.
While personal demons are pretty much a fixture of any movie about great musicians, Born to be Blue does an astounding job depicting Chet’s heroin addiction, and how it tugs polar to his addiction to music. The film is about his comeback, sort of, after drug abuse had flatlined his career ad personal life. Chet was a guy who performed with and was admired by the best, including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom are portrayed in the film. In 1966 Chet is starring in a film based on his own life, but before shooting can be completed he’s jumped by drug pushers he owes money to. They beat him mercilessly, destroying his teeth and his ability to play the trumpet. His embouchure destroyed, Chet is left a broken man. The only hope he has of recovering is through the strength of his woman, Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who forces him to turn his life around.
Of course it won’t be easy, and the film largely focuses on how much of a hook heroin has into Chet’s life. Early on he talks glowingly about his ability to do everything better when high, not just musically but in everyday life. But it’s also the thing that has cost him the one thing he loves most. Chet’s road to recovery is hindered by a dogged probation officer, poor job prospects, and perception within the music industry that he is unreliable. Which he is. When on his game, usually smacked out of his mind, Chet is one of the greats. But it comes with risks that most studios aren’t willing to take. The only one who stands by his side throughout is Jane, a fictional character comprised of many women in Chet’s life. Fortunately the film doesn’t just depict her as a crutch, or turn her into an albatross. Her love for Chet is absolute but she has her own issues to contend with, stemming from being an African-American woman trying to make it as an actress. As a pair of starving artists they rely on one another to get through, an unfortunate rarity in these kinds of films where matters of the heart are sacrificed to the business or personal demons.
While some of the flashbacks smack of standard biopic formula, the film never falls into a predictable pattern. For one thing, Chet’s drug addiction is at the center of literally every decision he has to make. At one point he’s so down on his luck that he’s forced to pump gas, and then take other odd jobs just to keep the probation officer off his back. And yet there are no excuses made for any of it. At one point we visit in on Chet’s family and get a sense of his poor upbringing as the son of a disgruntled former musician. But Chet, nor the film, uses this as a reason for his drug use. Instead, Chet simply says it makes him happy when pressed on why he loves it so.
With his chiseled features and wiry frame, Hawke bears a physical resemblance to Chet, but it’s his quiet disposition and vulnerability that stand out. As Chet, he projects the musician’s depression over his many failures, but also the fragile confidence that heroin gives him. It’s a totally confident performance from Hawke, reflecting his obvious enthusiasm for the material and respect for Chet Baker’s career. “Born to be Blue” also shows a certain reverence for the legendary jazz artist, and it pays that respect by treating his story honestly, the high notes and the low.