Born to Be Blue (2016) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Tony Nappo
Cameo: Anthony Davis, DeRay Davis
Director: Robert Budreau
Screenplay: Robert Budreau
Review published April 18, 2016

Written and directed by Robert Budreau (That Beautiful Somewhere), Born to Be Blue is a biopic about legendary jazz artist Chet Baker, focusing mostly on a key period in his career, the 1950s and 1960s, when he became the pioneer of West Coast jazz. Chet Baker was a rarity, not only for his music, but because of his skin color -- a white jazz man playing music alongside even bigger greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. The film mostly deals with Baker's trouble with heroin addiction, a traumatic incident in which his "chops" would be demolished in 1968, and his apprehensive road back to trying to get where he once was in an industry that no longer believed in him.

The film starts with Baker playing himself in a film that was planned, but never actually made, about his own life. Born to be Blue utilizes this film-in-a-film approach to draw out the glamorized, black-and-white version of Chet Baker (Hawke, Predestination) with the so-called reality of the situation, even with the very unsavory issue of his womanizing and his own addiction to heroin. Also included is the love affair he would have with a struggling but ambitious actress named Jane, who is a composite fictional character, played by Carmen Ejogo (Selma), who also plays Baker's wife in the fictional film.  He's out of prison, but still under the close supervision of his probation officer, who wants him to get a clean and steady job and get out of the lifestyle that has too many temptations for him at the ready, knowing that the methadone he is prescribed to kick the habit will only get him so far.

Ethan Hawke, at 45 years old, is a a good deal more mature in appearance to play his real-life counterpart during the same period (who was in his mid-20s to mid-30s), though, it an be said, that hard drugs can age a person's physical appearance in significant ways.  Soft spoken but always thoughtful, Ethan Hawke delivers one of his finest performances in years as Baker, mimicking both his singing and his trumpet playing for the role, which gives us layers of insecurity and vulnerability that has us hoping for him to succeed, even though he often operates on a level that ends up harming those who are trying to help him control the inner turmoil that has him turning back to drugs time and again. Carmen Ejogo is also a great counterpart, exhibiting resolve, intelligence, and romantic appeal, even if the actors cast as her parents look nothing like her, though that has never stopped Hollywood in this regard. Unlike the timid, passive, or nearly nonexistent role usually given to the long-suffering spouse, the story gives her a more rounded personality, and a more active role in Baker's life, showing just what kind of like the musician would have to lose if he were to ever revert back to his ways as a user and abuser (in truth, Baker was already married in 1966, when most of this film is set, to the woman he would remain married to until his death in 1988). The film sets up stakes, and we can see the sadness, anguish and turmoil that conflicted Baker as he struggled to feel what he considered to be 'normal' again.

Writer-director Budreau is further expanding on a short film he created back in 2009 called, "The Deaths of Chet Baker", which featured Callum Keith Rennie (Fifty Shades of Grey), who plays record company owner and producer Dick Bock in Born to Be Blue, as Baker.  While that film looks more at the final chapter of his troubled life, this more of a non-literal mood exploration of Chet Baker at his creative peak than it is a fact-based docudrama recounting of events as he roamed the Earth. While it does explore, yet again, a famous musician's struggles with drug abuse and relationship issues, the approach feels fresh.  Instead of going back to Chet's childhood to try to find the key to why he might feel that heroin holds the key to his success or failure, though the fact that he has brought them a bit of shame due to the antics certainly exacerbated whatever problems had been there. The film floats the notion from Baker himself that he does it because he likes it, or, at least how he feels when he uses them; he feels it gives him what he needs to truly get inside every note he plays.  I suppose what Baker really was trying to say was that being high meant that he didn't have to have what he had when he wasn't: the lucidity to realize that, underneath it all, his self-confidence had been as shattered as his palate, perhaps even before the incident that nearly ruined his career, though exponentially more afterward.

The film ends, not with his death, but with a choice.  It's a choice that only Chet Baker could make, which is to embrace his drug addiction for the life he once had, to continue to curb it with other drugs that dull the urge for the life he currently has, or, perhaps, to try to do without either of them, and try to live the life everyone wants him to have.  Either road, it seems like a tragedy in the making, to either realize his dreams and be consumed by them, or to fade into obscurity when they are just within his grasp.  Others feel he has it within him to be great without the drugs, or to just be good and have happiness, but is it enough for Chet, whose sole philosophy in life is to find something you love and be the best at it, no matter the cost?  The film answers the question, but raises a more important one: is the virtue of fame in the music industry worth all of the vices it takes to deal with the myriad of expectations, hopes, fears, heartaches and regrets that go hand in hand with it?

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo