Born to Be Blue
The Chet Baker portrayed by Ethan Hawke in Robert Budreau’s misty biopic Born to Be Blue is midway between beauty and ruin. Behind him are the 1950s, when his easy virtuosity and matinee idol looks swiftly took Baker from Charlie Parker’s sideman to major player on Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label. William Claxton captured the languid grace of that vibrant, young Chet in alluring black-and-white photographs that established the jazz trumpeter and vocalist as the epitome of California cool.
Ahead are two peripatetic decades of scattershot gigs and recording sessions, and the heroin addiction that would transform Baker’s face into a hollow-eyed mask of deep lines and sunken cheeks. Photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber studied that Baker, a worn but still charismatic performer, in the 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost, which premiered four months after Baker’s fatal fall from an Amsterdam hotel window.
The mystery surrounding Baker’s final moments inspired writer/director Budreau to speculate about his life in the 2009 short The Deaths of Chet Baker, with Stephen McHattie enacting various scenarios about what might have precipitated that plunge. Now, in Born to Be Blue, Budreau weaves a fictional romance around Baker’s mid-career struggle to orchestrate a comeback after landing in prison on drug charges.
In a promising meta-narrative that introduces actress Jane Azuka (Carmen Ejogo), Hawke’s Chet has been cast in a Hollywood version of his life (inspired by a never-made Dino de Laurentiis project). This movie-within-a-movie, with its cherry-picked details and glossed-over sins, acknowledges the pitfalls of the musician biopic and signals that Born to Be Blue isn’t going to be a note-for-note recreation.
But Budreau’s variation on the theme of Chet Baker doesn’t play out as an inspired improvisation, settling instead into familiar grooves of a redemptive melodrama, with Jane as the embittered savior whose pure heart and clear head could rescue the tortured genius from himself. It’s one of the most pernicious clichés in the genre, and if the fictional Jane were a real black woman in the late 1960s with her background and accomplishments (bohemian daughter of academics, trained jazz pianist and vocalist, Chekhov-quoting Method actress), she’d be more likely leading a cultural revolution than propping up a strung-out relic of the Eisenhower era.
Budreau employs the iconography of Claxton and Weber to present Baker’s star quality, that heady blend of intimacy and distance, but uses the way Jane sees Chet to show how his allure intertwines with a destructive nature. Ejogo (Selma) anchors Hawke’s self-indulgent, reckless and fiercely dedicated Chet, providing emotional veracity to events that blend fiction with fact (like a tenacious Baker painfully reworking his embouchure after a severe beating damages his mouth).
While Budreau highlights Hawke’s resemblance to Baker by focusing on the faded boyishness of his gaunt face, Hawke chooses interpretation over impersonation. He uses the breathy upper register of his voice to capture both the persuasive qualities of the soft-spoken Baker and his barely contained volatility.
This duality is key to an encounter with his father (McHattie), a taciturn Oklahoma farmer and frustrated musician, in which Chet reveals how Chesney Sr. influenced his recording of the Mel Tormé standard “Born to Be Blue.” Hawke and McHattie maintain tight-lipped smiles as their reconciliation turns into a hostile discussion of the disappointment overshadowing Baker’s success.
Budreau has obvious affection for Baker, and pinpoints the musician’s tragic flaw as the belief that heroin elevates his talent. Hawke’s Chet is an unrepentant junkie and smooth manipulator whose claim that he only hurts himself is belied by Jane, a stand-in for all the relationships Baker sacrificed. Their Chet Baker expresses love and inspires devotion, but always values his transcendent trumpet at the cost of everything else.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on March 25, 2016 by IFC Films
First published in The Village Voice, 2016.