TIFF Journal: ‘Born to Be Blue’

'Born to Be Blue'

Movie Rating:


‘Born to Be Blue is a perfectly decent bio-pic of the late, great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. The film serves up some clever reinventions of overly familiar bio-pic forms in the hopes of reinventing the genre. For a while, it’s a rather clever take on an old standard, but unfortunately the movie eventually reverts to the expected rhythms, which proves to be all the more frustrating because there’s a pretty damn great Ethan Hawke performance at the center of it.

Rather than attempt to condense Baker’s entire life into a single feature length narrative, the movie focuses on a brief period in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Around that time, uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted to make a movie with Chet starring as himself that never came to pass. Here, Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau imagines that movie had been made (for a bit), which allows viewers to get a traditional backstory on Baker in black-and-white as a movie-within-a-movie. Carmen Ejogo cleverly plays multiple women in Chet’s early life before going on to become one of those composite love interests of oh-so many bio-pics. The dual movie structure lets Budreau condense a lot of expository information and comment on bio-pics in amusing ways. However, the fake bio project eventually collapses and the flick gets far less interesting once it’s over.

After Baker gets beaten up and loses his Hollywood gig, he finds himself bottoming out in Los Angeles, unable to even play thanks to a fresh set of false teeth. But he has a good woman by his side, a burned-out producer (Callum Keith Rennie) who kind of believes in him, and an amazing natural talent. So dammit, the guy just might make a comeback! That is, if he can stay away from his second love: heroin. Yes, it’s that old song again – one that admittedly the entire cast commits to admirably. Budreau has a few more twists to toss in, but ultimately what started as a unique take on the Chet Baker life story turns into exactly the one you’d expect.

Thankfully, it’s not a total disaster. That first half is fascinatingly meta, and Ethan Hawke is excellent throughout. At first, the Baker husk that Hawke adopts sounds like it might be a distracting affectation. However, it slowly feels more natural and the center of a pretty transformative performance for an actor who usually plays variations on himself (wonderfully so, but he’s still not a chameleon). Hawke even attempts to sing a few Baker tunes and doesn’t embarrass himself. The movie is worth watching for his work alone and he gets a good cast to support him, they’re sadly stuck with characters far less complex.

‘Born to Be Blue’ is a perfectly acceptable new entry in the seemingly endless bio-pic genre. It’s just frustrating to watch Budreau’s movie settle into that predictable fate after promising so much more in the early going.

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