After the release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, critics took a much closer look at the music biopics that take up the cinematic landscape. Many pictures that focus on music greats follow the same formula, beat-by-beat, and that lack of creativity in a genre about genius is difficult to tolerate. In kind, filmmakers have upped their game in telling the stories that make up the legend of these musicians. Too often, these films end up treating the central figures as gilded heroes, whose weaknesses with drugs and other exotic substances are more exciting to depict instead of the passion and talent that made them iconic to begin with. For the benefit of the audience and its subject, director Robert Budreau avoids that blunder with Born to Be Blue, a biopic of Chet Baker. He’s also wise enough to set the scope to a much more manageable period of months rather than compressing Baker’s entire life into 120 minutes.
Encompassing any subject’s entire life leaves no room to explore the minute details that leave a permanent etching on the soul. Like a crestfallen son who gifts an album to his father, only to have his father respond “Why did you have to sing like a girl,” Ethan Hawke specializes in distilling masculinity and vulnerability together as evidenced by previous roles like Training Day, but Chet Baker is the actor’s showcase that Hawke is rarely provided as a regular in genre fare. Hawke forgoes Oscar-bait grandstanding in lieu of minimalist affectation, and in doing so, he creates a much more natural portrayal.
Born to Be Blue chooses to study Baker after a savage beating leaves his career in limbo. With his teeth gone, the musician must teach himself to play again with dentures. Surprisingly, forming an embouchure (the pursed-lip technique) around his dentures proves a tortuous experience, and the bloody effort only proves how badly Baker needs the spotlight. He manages to reteach himself for the sake of his career, but his lifelong battle with heroin flares up as soon as the unbearable pain kicks in. Budreau is smart enough to illuminate the non-existent divide between the master performer and the man who sticks a needle in his arms, as Baker knows that he needs to stay clean to keep working, but only heroin can numb the pain.
Budreau, who writes the screenplay as well, doesn’t make any claims to fidelity but explores the essence of what made Baker so captivating. The writer/director blends fact and fiction by framing flashbacks through a black-and-white biopic. This picture-within-a-picture features Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an amalgamation of several women prominent in Baker’s life. Jane is no mere window dressing that only comes around to lecture Chet when he is in the wrong. She tackles her own hardships as a black actress trying to make it in Hollywood, which makes Baker’s dismissal of her ambitions all the crueler, considering her help was crucial to his own comeback. Her wonderment of how a crude man could make such romantic music is a thought shared by the audience.
Born to Be Blue is not uncritical of the fact that Baker, a white man, derived so much more attention than his black peers in the jazz community. A famous face of the 50s, Baker led the West Coast jazz scene, but by the 60s he was largely washed up. Hawke plays that failure as deeply personal and one that he is most embarrassed about. Setting a majority of the film in the decade’s last few years makes the pivotal Birdland performances as tense as any big-budget climax. Born to Be Blue doesn’t promise to be a 100 percent true account of Chet Baker’s life, but in doing so, Budreau and Hawke create an account that proves entertaining for fans new to Baker and lifelong jazz aficionados.
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