Cinema will always be fascinated by flawed genius. As much as biopics are designed to highlight the talents on display, they also serve to make icons relatable. They have demons just like you and me; especially if they’re musicians. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that great musical talent often comes with great personal problems. It certainly did for Chet Baker, the subject of Robert Budreau’s very good “Born to Be Blue,” a film anchored by one of Ethan Hawke’s best performances. The film succumbs to the inherent “then this happened” nature of the music biopic, but Hawke grounds it in such a convincing way (ably assisted by Carmen Ejogo and Callum Keith Rennie) that it’s easy to forgive its clichés. And Budreau clearly knows and loves his subject matter, having created a short film about Baker before expanding to feature length. He also notably pushes up against the standard structure of the biopic whenever possible.
Chet Baker had a roller coaster of a career, the peaks fueled by his heartfelt ability to play the trumpet and the valleys deepened by his addiction to heroin. “Born to Be Blue” wisely doesn’t try to arc the entire career of Baker, starting years after he began his battle with drugs, but before his comeback in the ‘70s. And Budreau makes his intent to focus on Baker’s talent as much as his addictions clear by starting with a lengthy solo from the artist. Five minutes in, bathed in black-and-white photography, Baker is trying drugs for the first time with a clichéd line like “I never tried it before.” Cut. It’s a movie within a movie about Baker. Budreau is putting the clichés on the table. Making it clear that he knows that this is the old-fashioned way to shoot a biopic, and he’s going to try and subvert it.
It’s the end of the ‘60s, and Baker falls hard for the actress playing an amalgamation of women from his life in the film within a film, a gorgeous woman named Jane (Carmen Ejogo). As the two fall for each other, tragedy strikes when Baker is mercilessly beaten after a gig in what some say was a drug vendetta for payments unmade. Baker’s teeth were shattered, making his career as a musician questionable and causing him a degree of pain for the rest of his life. Jane stays by his side though, even as addiction returns and the colleagues and his producer (Callum Keith Rennie) give up on him.
Hawke embodies Baker with a high whisper of a voice, missing teeth and a quirky cadence. It's a riveting performance from first scene to last. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin, but more out of insecurity than anything else. We don’t usually see Hawke play characters this vulnerable and scared. His take on Baker is a man always seeking approval, and only comfortable when he’s high. He asks people “Is everything OK?” a lot. And he tells Jane something that I think served as the foundation of his demons: “You should find one thing and be better at it than anybody else in the whole world.” That kind of all-or-nothing thinking leads to damage, especially for someone as insecure as Baker, thrusting him into addiction when he falls short of his own impossible standards.
There are times when I wish “Born to Be Blue” was a bit more ambitiously structured, but Budreau tries. It’s almost dreamlike in moments. But it doesn’t quite commit to being as different from the pack as its subject matter was to jazz. Surprisingly, and successfully, it becomes a love story. Hawke and Ejogo have phenomenal chemistry, as she plays Jane more as a stabilizer than a savior. There’s a tender scene in the third act in their trailer that’s just a beauty. This is a movie about a junkie who often succumbed to his addictions, but it’s not a dark descent into hell. It takes a lot of time for hope, joy, music and love. It’s about a fear of failure, a need to express, and a desire to be great. Who can’t relate to that? We all have a little bit of that in us, and whether it drives us to greatness or tragedy, only time will tell.