Jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker found fame playing with Charlie Parker in the early 50s before enjoying great success with his own quartet. Following a decline into heroin addiction he then spent the first half of the next decade in and out of prison but continued to perform professionally. Unfortunately this came to a sudden end when his face was smashed up in a beating, probably related to his purchase of drugs. Baker’s embouchure was ruined and he was unable to play. Eventually, and with new teeth, he got his proficiency back and enjoyed a career resurgence in the 70s and 80s. This much is all true. What Born to Be Blue does is tell a story of what could have happened in his time out of the limelight.
Ethan Hawke plays Baker, doing all of his own singing but none of his playing. Hawke’s own career has seen him reach audiences both large and small but he has always been strong with some particular highs in films like Before Sunrise, Training Day and Boyhood. He has never been better than he is here. He manages to make you sympathise with a man trying to come back from a selfish destructive cycle. He is not always likeable but you are totally with him on his struggle as he lives having lost the thing that totally defines him. Alongside Hawke is Selma’s Carmen Ejogo who is similarly good as his fictional partner Jane.
Born to Be Blue is more than its performances though. Writer director Robert Budreau has not made a standard biopic; the film plays with the timeline having black and white flashbacks but these are depicted as scenes from an incomplete film Baker shot with him playing himself and Jane portraying his ex-wife. This conceit means you are always aware of the artifice of what’s on screen while still being able to invest in the characters. There is honesty to this approach; so many true life stories take liberties with the truth while hoping you’ll accept everything as fact but Born to Be Blue is consciously and openly just telling a story.
That story is engaging, well-paced, unindulgent and moving with moments of real tension, particularly toward the end. The fact that Chet Baker was a real man is important, giving power to the denouement, but this would be an equally successful film were it all fiction. It may not be as showy as recent similarly themed pictures like Miles Ahead and Whiplash but it has something that those movies lack – something important to the world of jazz and blues music; it has soul and authenticity.
By Mark Waters
BORN TO BE BLUE IS IN CINEMAS, ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD, BLU-RAY™ & DVD FROM MONDAY 25TH JULY 2016