I’m always weary about a movie that has taken 20 years to be filmed. There have been rumors of a Chet Baker biopic since at least the late 1990s, with everyone from Brad Pitt to an even younger Ethan Hawke playing Baker. Fortunately, Born to be Blue with a middle-aged Ethan Hawke portraying Baker is one of the most engaging musical biopics that has been released in quite a while. Instead of creating a paint by numbers approach which most musical biopics do, Hawke and director Robert Budreau create a more nuanced biopic. This a movie that does not so much recount the life of Chet Baker, but instead asks is it possible to be a musical genius and happy, or be a genius and junk head.
Starting in 1966, Baker (Hawke) has gone off heroin and is starring in a fictional biopic about his life. After being beaten up by drug dealers, Baker has to relearn how to play the trumpet and attempt to make a comeback, while also maintaining his sobriety. Baker also falls in love with a woman named Jane (Carmen Ejogo, who also plays Elaine, Chet’s former wife).
As I said earlier, the movie is about duality. A pivotal moment in the movie occurs when Baker, in his sex symbol days, meets Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. While Gillespie compliments Baker, Miles Davis proceeds to call him a rip off and makes reference to Baker being the “Great White Hope” of the Jazz world. After this, Baker starts abusing heroin (like Davis) and while his playing becomes more challenging, he loses his career. Fast forward to a few years later when Baker is in the gutter due to his addiction and he falls in love Jane. After staying clean and being with Jane, Baker starts to play and becomes decent while clean; however, he still does not display the confidence that he once had. This all comes to the climax of the film, where Baker has to ultimately choose between performing sober and maintaining the love of Jane; or shooting up heroin, recapturing his genius, but ultimately losing the woman he loves. I will not tell you the choice he makes, but either one is devastating.
Besides the amazing music, Hawke and Ejogo are incredible as Baker and Jane/Elaine. There is a real chemistry between them that does not feel forced. When Hawke as Baker sings “My Funny Valentine” during the movie, you can tell that he is singing not only about Jane, but also about himself. This was a man who at one point had matinee idol looks, to looking like a strung out junkie. This makes the audience invested in Chet and Jane’s relationship, while also acknowledging the relationship that Chet has to his music. And ultimately, that is what this movie is about: the relationship between a man and his music.
Fun Fact: Check out the Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost” which was filmed a year before he died in 1988. That is an amazing doc and covers a more fuller look at Baker’s life and mythos.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.