This is a biopic of the jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker that pulls the same trick as two other recent films about troubled musicians, Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead and Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy, by dramatising and flicking between two distinct and different periods in the life of its subject. So we encounter Baker (Ethan Hawke) in black and white, on the way up and playing the legendary New York jazz venue Birdland, where his West Coast swing is dismissed by an unimpressed, bepop-playing Miles Davis (‘come back when you’ve lived a little’). But these are reveries experienced by the trumpet player as he wistfully makes his way through the mid-1960’s, in colour, having lived a little too hard. In this later period we find him struggling to stay off the dope, trying to settle down with actress girlfriend Jane (Carmen Ejogo) and attempting to relaunch his career (following a bad beating in which his teeth are knocked out by a dealer, which gives rise to the oft-used ‘you’ll never play again’ line). The two periods momentarily cross over in an interesting fashion, with a film-within-a-film structure employed briefly by director Robert Budreau, but for the most part the action stays with Baker and Jane in sunny, beige California while the musician and the actress struggle to find work and ponder a future together. (Jane is a fictional character, apparently based on several different girlfriends Baker had around that time, and her main purpose here is to shed light on the fact that in this story the musician’s one true love is heroin.)
Plenty of attention has been paid to the film’s formal elements, such as the lighting, framing, period set design and costumes, while there are some nice touches to telegraph Baker’s semi-return to former glories: for example, a volume control slider in a studio becomes a tool by which those of us with untrained ears can measure Baker’s playing as it improves; put simply, as he gets better he is recorded at a higher volume. Additionally, Hawke’s performance is excellent; possibly his best to date, in fact, and he successfully captures Baker’s soft voice and languid mannerisms while also portraying the musician’s fragility and self-doubt in a believable, understated fashion. He’s at his best and his most affecting when singing, surprisingly, and it feels like a definitive portrait of Baker despite the fact that the writer/director has taken some liberties with the facts.
Despite these pleasing elements, and despite the fact that Born To Be Blue rejects the conventional linear biopic structure in favour of something…uh, jazzier…Budreau’s screenplay still routinely touches on all the usual subjects – the drugs, the relationship break-ups, the low ebb, the stirring comeback – as if he’s ticking off the boxes on a standard music biopic checksheet. Additionally, while the scenes set at Birdland may give jazz aficionados the willies, for me they lacked the magic of similar scenes from Pohlad’s film, in which Paul Dano’s Brian Wilson orchestrates the Pet Sounds recordings; also there’s something a little reductive here in terms of the way the film distills an entire music industry to just a couple of important/unimportant stages, one recording studio, one manager and one tour promoter. (This could of course be a decision that was made due to budgetary constraints.) Still, Born To Be Blue certainly make for an interesting counterpart to Cheadle’s movie, and is worth seeing for Hawke’s turn alone, which dovetails extremely well with the melancholic, soulful nature of Baker’s music and the film more generally.
Directed by: Robert Budreau.
Written by: Robert Budreau.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie, Janet Laine-Green, Kedar Brown, Kevin Hanchard.
Cinematography: Steve Cosens.
Editing: David Freeman.
Music: David Braid, Todor Kobakov, Steve London.
Running Time: 97.