In one of two jazz legend biopics in theaters right now, Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker film, Born To Be Blue, manages to maintain enough interest to keep me engaged throughout it’s hour and 37 minute run time despite drifting into a more conventional form in it’s second half.
Born To Be Blue is a re-imagining of jazz legend Chet Baker’s musical comeback in the late 1960’s.
Chet Baker was a prominent figure in the West Coast cool jazz sound. His understated, wistful sound, and his boyish, breathy vocals, were a style all his own. He stood out and made a name for himself on that, along with his almost impossibly good looks that Hollywood wanted on film. But, other than a couple of on screen appearances, Chet Baker would turn down offers to make him a film star. Even Dino De Laurentiis wanted to make a bio pic of him, starring Baker as himself. The jazz musician also turned this down, but now, writer/director Budreau has taken that idea, and much of the first third or so of Born To Be Blue is shot as if Chet Baker was starring in that very film.
Ethan Hawke continues to prove that he is an underrated actor in his portrayal of the jazz great, giving a more than solid performance here. It doesn’t hurt that his bone structure lends itself to similarities to Baker. Here, he plays Chet Baker playing himself in this kind of movie in a movie as we see him first being introduced to heroin, the drug that would plague him the rest of his life, and performing at Birdland, in front of Dizzy Gillespie and an ever scrutinizing Miles Davis back in the late 1950’s. His actress girlfriend, Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo, portrays an amalgam of various woman in Baker’s life. Like the events depicted in this part of Born To Be Blue, we get a mix of truth and artistic license.
But this first half of Born To Be Blue has the rhythm and feel of classic jazz music itself. It feels alive with energy at times, sombre and romantic at others. There are beautiful black and white shots that bring to life the feeling of some of those old jazz album covers from the 50’s and 60’s and they are wonderful. These moments are intercut with scenes in color as we come back to the present of 1966 where the story is focused. In the summer o f 1966 Chet Baker was attacked in what is most widely accepted as some kind of drug related physical altercation in which Baker was beaten up and lost a couple front teeth.
This, along with his addiction to heroin, caused him to have a lot of difficulty in playing the trumpet. He had to relearn his embouchure (the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of woodwind or brass instruments). Yeah, I had to look it up, too. Basically, he had to relearn what muscles to use in order to play the trumpet again. But soon after this part of the film, Born To Be Blue becomes a structurally pretty conventional biopic, and therefore loses some of that unique energy and style.
That’s not to say that it’s not a good film after that, but it just loses some of its’ originality. But the film remains worth seeing because of it’s performances by Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo, as well as it’s effort to tell this story in a way that is unlike most biopics. If for any reason at all, see it for that. Three and a half kittenhands form me, kids. Whether you like Chet Baker or not, or ever wanted to know a bit about him, check this out.
~ Neil T Weakley, your average movie-goer, thinking it’s kinda cool that Ethan Hawke actually sang a couple songs in this himself.