A few minutes into Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s film about jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, it seems like we might be on rocky ground. After a 1954 gig at the famed New York club Birdland, Baker (Ethan Hawke) tries heroin for the first time, an experience that gives way to a teary-eyed encounter with his wife Elaine (Carmen Ejogo, last seen as Coretta Scott King in Selma) in which he tries to describe the experience as she offers explanations about what drove him to the needle. It’s a scene straight out of the Big Book of Hollywood Biopics. Then someone yells “cut,” and it’s revealed we’re on the set of a movie being shot in the mid-’60s, one in which Baker is playing himself opposite a young actress named Jane. We’re watching a biopic, sure, but it’s not that kind of biopic.
Which isn’t to say it’s not the other kind of biopic, either, an experimental riff on a famous life of the sort Todd Haynes occasionally makes, like I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine. Instead, it’s a fictionalized account of a discrete period of Baker’s life inspired by a couple of real-life events. Imprisoned on drug charges in Italy, he was approached by Dino DeLaurentis about the possibility of starring in his own biopic in the mid-’60s. And shortly after returning to America, he was, as he is in an early scene here, set upon by assailants who targeted his mouth, forcing him to more or less relearn how to play with dentures.
To that, Budreau adds a romance with Elaine, who helps him get clean, and a trip back home to Oklahoma, where Baker dries out while reuniting with his mom (Janet-Laine Green) and dad (Stephen McHattie, a terrific Canadian actor who previously played an older Baker in a short film for Budreau). If you sense that some of those elements seem to be taken from the Big Book of Hollywood Biopics, too, you’re not wrong. Born to Be Blue‘s promotional materials bill it as an “anti-biopic.” It’s not. If anything, it hearkens back to an older school of biopics that took what facts they needed and embellished the rest in the interest of a good story.
And it is a good story, one that allows a representative sliver of Baker’s life to suggest that life as a whole. While it’s never quite clear what attracts the otherwise sensible Jane to Baker in the first place, Hawke and Ejogo give the relationship a tenderness that’s tied to the unspoken understanding that he cannot screw up the second chance he’s been given, a chance made possible in no small part because she believes in him. Ejogo turns in a performance strong enough to push past the expected clichés.
Similarly, Hawke turns an icon of cool into a flesh-and-blood character. Handsome and charismatic enough to earn comparisons to James Dean, Baker helped define the sound of West Coast jazz in the 1950s, pioneering, with Gerry Mulligan, a spare but demanding style that earned mainstream popularity and made Baker a star outside of jazz circles. That he was handsome and white didn’t hurt either, and Born to Be Blue keeps circling back to Baker’s anxiety about having to prove himself to East Coast jazz giants like Dizzy Gillespie and, especially, Miles Davis, who gets in his head by calling Baker’s set “sweet… like candy.”
Hawke makes Baker both winning, sad, and oddly uncomplicated. He maintains a boyish charm whether high or sober and, when pressed about why he keeps turning back to heroin, he has a simple answer: “It makes me happy.” But there’s a weariness in his eyes that suggests he knows whatever happiness he finds by shooting up comes at a long-term cost, both for himself and those who care about him. “He never hurt anybody but himself,” he says of his former boss, Charlie Parker. “Just like me.” But Baker knows better, and so does the film, which has little interest in entertaining myths about tortured artists or glamorizing self-destructiveness. Instead, it shows a man in possession of a gift that he always seems to be on the verge of throwing away and lets us contemplate the loss of both the man and his art, even if Baker’s ultimate fate remains outside the timeframe of the film. It’s understated, insistent, bittersweet, and doesn’t linger a moment too long, animated by Baker’s spirit to the end.
Born to Be Blue opens in New York and L.A. Friday before expanding throughout April.