'Born to Be Blue'
‘Born to Be Blue’ is the inevitable Chet Baker bio-pic that was destined to happen. Thankfully, it’s well-cast and even rather creatively structured. In fact, for the first 20 minutes or so, you might even think you’re watching a film as free-form, unpredictable and distinct as the legendary jazz artist. Unfortunately, at a certain point the movie descends into the clichés of the “tragic artist” picture never to return.
It’s a shame to see the promising film fall back into formula after admirably avoiding those traps in the early going. Still, I suppose some viewers respond to the predictable bio-pic beats in the same way that audiences come to love the conventions of any genre. Those viewers will undoubtedly appreciate the way ‘Born to Be Blue’ seems to retreat from its initial conceit. Everyone else will be left wondering what could have been.
The film opens in black-and-white as Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) juggles his artistic ambitions and his home life with a fairly generic supportive love interest (Carmen Ejogo). He’s about to try heroin for the first time when we hear the word “Cut.” The film then turns to color and we realize that we’re watching Baker play himself in a fictionalized bio-pic in the 1960s. That’s a pretty clever way for Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau to acknowledge the limitations of the genre he’s working in.
From there, the film chronicles a very specific era in the jazz trumpeter’s life. His initial fame flamed out in a puddle of drug abuse. He finds love with the actress who played his love interest in the film-within-the-film, and Ejogo then becomes a composite girlfriend in the “real world.” Bottoming out after being beaten badly enough that he loses teeth and has to teach himself his instrument again, Baker climbs out of his self-imposed hole thanks to the strength of a good woman and the support of a manager (Callum Keith Rennie) who never quite gave up hope.
Given the endless turmoil and repeated abuse cycles that defined Baker’s life as much as his undeniable musical genius, it makes sense for Budreau to focus on a specific era rather than attempting to tell a birth-to-death story. The material is strong and the opening sequence lets Budreau off the hook for slipping into cliché for a little while. He shoots the film with a woozy visual aesthetic that suits the story surprisingly well.
More than anything else, the film is worth watching purely for Hawke’s remarkable central performance. He gets the broken smile and high-pitched desperate whisper of a voice just right (even daring to sing a famous Baker song and nailing it). Beyond those acts of mimicry, Hawke disappears into the role of a man whose life is defined by a crippling insecurity. He moves like a broken question mark and seems to sink inside himself whenever he’s asked to embrace the outside world. It’s an excellent and heartbreaking performance from the oft-underrated actor, not merely the centerpiece of ‘Born to Be Blue’, but its entire reason for being.
Around the edges, Carmen Ejogo and Callum Keith Rennie are also rather strong in their stock “endlessly forgiving girlfriend” and “worried manager” types. The trouble is that aside from Hawke’s haunting Baker, no one else on screen gets the chance to create a living and breathing human being. Budreau’s singular focus on Baker ensures that everything around the protagonist feels half-baked and underexplored. As strong as Hawke might be in the title role, eventually he’s stuck acting through a series of addiction and artistic creativity montages as old as the artist bio-pic genre itself and rarely interesting.
‘Born to Be Blue’ starts strong, looks gorgeous, and is hinged on a fantastic central performance. However, it becomes depressing to watch the movie disintegrate as it becomes increasingly conventional. The bio-pic clearly isn’t going anywhere as a genre. It sells and tends to win gold statues, but it would be nice if filmmakers remembered that unconventional efforts like ‘Raging Bull’, ‘Lenny’ or ‘Ed Wood’ are part of this genre as well. They don’t all have to feel like ‘Walk Hard’ without the jokes.