Born to Be Blue
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo
Born to Be Blue suffers from the fact that Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is also playing at the SXSW film festival. The poorly timed films focus on the same plot lines that showcase drug addicted musicians grappling with their careers slipping through their fingers. This isn’t director Robert Budreau’s first feature on the famous heroin addicted trumpet player. Born to Be Blue is more polished, more musical, better performed than Cheadle’s directorial debut. It’s the repetitive nature of the story that offers so much fatigue. Ethan Hawke gives a fascinating performance in this reimagined biography which fictionalizes the details of Baker’s late 60’s comeback.
His best work seems to be behind him, Chet Baker (Hawke) and his trumpet, recreated a new jazz sound for the west coast. However his heroin abuse already ruined two marriages and has suspended his career. A Hollywood producer bails him out of an Italian prison, offering him a movie deal depicting his rise and fall. Jane (Ejogo) plays his wife, and various women in his life, but is drawn to the desperate musician as he struggles to get clean. They move in together, living in her VW van on the pacific coast while she auditions for acting jobs and he cleans up his act. Baker understands that this could be his last shot at a comeback, to rejoin the career he can’t live without. Baker loses his two front teeth which forces him to relearn everything in order to get that signature sound and confidence.
Hawke is the single reason to see this film
Hawke (Boyhood, Gattaca) is the single reason to see this film. It’s as if the 45-year-old actor just gets better with every role. Hawke has become a stimulating force in independent cinema, especially in the city of Austin, attending festivals yearly. His performance and vocal styling are the heart and soul of the picture. The script, also by Budreau, is pretty standard as biopics go. Flashbacks are shown in black and white (to make sure the audience understands which era we are in). We get an entire sequence where Baker and Jane travel to his childhood home in Oklahoma to detox. These scenes seem to suggestion background information regarding Baker’s unstable personality and introduction to drugs.
Baker, at least as portrayed in this film, doesn’t get the sympathy of the audience like Johnny Cash does in Walk the Line or Ray Charles in Ray. We watch an addict struggle to keep his music alive more than relationships or health. Beautiful shots of Hawke blowing notes by the pacific coast break up the redundancy of dark jazz clubs like Birdtown or smoky recording studios. Born to Be Blue offers a couple of stirring renditions of “My Funny Valentine” and “Over the Rainbow” that are really the highlights of the 97 minute film.
Hawke’s passion on screen are the films only offerings.