American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Photographer William Claxton, who took so many memorable photographs of jazz trumpet legend Chet Baker, said in "Let's Get Lost," Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary about Baker, "It was the first time I learned what star quality meant, what charisma meant." Claxton captured Baker in the season before heroin sunk in its claws, similar to Alfred Wertheimer's famous 1956 photos of Elvis Presley: a star on the cusp, still untarnished. Robert Budreau’s "Born To Be Blue" is interested, refreshingly, in what Baker's charisma meant and how it operated. Outside of talent, there was something about Baker's image (the James Dean hair, the handsome angular face, the prominent jawline) that drew audiences in. His gifts as an artist aren't in doubt, nor is his decades-long frank use of heroin, as well as the swoon to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam in 1988, but unlike other biopics of famous drug-addled performers, "Born to Be Blue" tries to get at what, exactly, the Baker persona was all about. The film doesn't frog-march us to the end of his life, obediently ticking off well-known events. Instead, it focuses on the period in the 1950s and 1960s when Baker became emblematic of what was known as West Coast jazz, an anomaly because of the color of his skin, but embraced (in some cases reluctantly) by the jazz giants of the day: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. "Born to Be Blue" shows Baker gutting his way back after getting his front teeth knocked out in 1968 under mysterious circumstances.
The film is carried by the performance of Ethan Hawke, a performance that understands Baker's appeal, Baker's demons and eventual unwillingness to fight those demons, as well as an exploration of the thing that was beyond Baker's control (i.e. his charisma: it came naturally, a blessing and a curse.) "Born To Be Blue" has many of the elements familiar to music biopics, but it's trying to do something different. It doesn't always succeed, but the attempt is a welcome change.
As legend has it, producer Dino De Laurentiis approached Chet Baker when Baker was in dire straits in Europe, and expressed interest in developing a film about Baker's life, starring Baker. De Laurentiis knew star quality when he saw it (and Baker had already appeared in a couple of films). That De Laurentiis project never came to pass, but "Born To Be Blue" presents an alternate history where it did. The film-within-a-film device is set up immediately in "Born to Be Blue," where Baker is shown—in smudgy glamorous black-and-white evocative of the look of the famous documentaries of that era capturing folk and jazz festivals—acting out stories from his own life, including his introduction to heroin and a nerve-wracking triumphant performance at Birdland. These scenes are interrupted by backstage dramas, filmed in muted-old-Polaroids color, where Baker tries to get his music career back on track and connects romantically with his female co-star, an actress named Jane (Carmen Ejogo).
Jane is a fictionalized composite of various Baker women, and Jane the fictional actress is also playing a fictionalized composite in the film-within-a-film. The doubling-up that this represents, the mirror-reflections of unreality, adds to the sense that "Born To Be Blue" is interested in exploration as opposed to a rote presentation of biographical-details.