Born to Be Blue
Directed by: Robert Budreau.
Written by: Robert Budreau.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Chet Baker), Carmen Ejogo (Jane / Elaine), Callum Keith Rennie (Dick), Tony Nappo (Officer Reid), Stephen McHattie (Dad), Janet-Laine Green (Mom), Dan Lett (Danny Friedman), Natassia Halabi (Jenny), Kevin Hanchard (Dizzy Gillespie), Kedar Brown (Miles Davis).
One of the difficulties in making a non-clichéd musical biopic is that so many of the musicians you would want to make a biopic of were pretty much walking clichés in the first place. Chet Baker was a jazz musician, who at the height of his fame, became addicted to heroin, went in jail, tried to get clean, and failed, got savagely beaten – breaking his teeth, which could have ended his career. Eventually, he was able to come back – and although he never really kicked heroin, he continued to make music. That is pretty much the career of every jazz musician of note. Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue does an admirable job trying to avoid the clichés of biopics of this kind. The film almost exclusively focuses on the section of Baker’s career where he was at his lowest, when he was trying to stay off of heroin, and to recover from his mouth injury that no one thought he could. The movie does have some flashbacks to when Baker was on top – but it basically focuses on one night – when Baker was among the most popular jazz musicians in America, and finally got to play Birdland in New York. Baker was popular, but Miles Davis was unimpressed – telling Baker to go out “and live a little” before he comes back. As the movie tells it, that was enough to send Baker into a spiral of drug addiction. The film will climax with another performance at Birdland – a comeback for Baker, which even impressed Davis.
Baker is played in an impressive performance by Ethan Hawke, who plays Baker is an easy going, soft spoken and charming. He doesn’t mean to hurt everyone around him – but he cannot help himself. He will sacrifice everything for his music, and Born to Be Blue is really about how he goes about doing that. When he’s at his lowest, he meets and falls in love with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress who got the role of Baker’s ex-wife, Elaine, in a movie that where Baker was to play himself (the movie was cancelled after that beating). She supports him, accompanies him home to his none-to-supportive parents, allows him to stay in her van, helps to keep him off heroin and slowly gets him back to playing again – none matter the pain. She is one of those ever-patient movie wives (even if they never really get married) – but Ejogo gives her more depth than most. She is a woman with her own hopes and dreams – and while she will support Chet, she won’t give up on her own dreams for him. And for her trouble, she gets very little in return.
Born to Be Blue eschews the normal rise and fall and rise again storyline that other biopics about drug addicted musicians, like Ray and Walk the Line, in that it doesn’t really dramatize either of Baker’s rises – it starts when he’s already famous, and ends just as he’s getting back there. For the most part, this is about Baker at his lowest point – which I suppose is one way to avoid those clichés. For most of the movie, he’s even off of heroin, meaning that the film doesn’t really wallow in drug movies clichés either – especially after the opening act, which is the only part where is consistently using.
The problem is that Born to Be Blue doesn’t find all that much to dramatize instead. It’s a good movie, anchored by two wonderful performances and it is an interesting love story. The movie fools you into thinking it’s a love story between Baker and Jane – the good woman, who helps to redeem him. Instead, it becomes clear that it’s really a love story between Baker and his music and drugs. He has a choice as to what he values most in life, and he quite clearly makes that choice in the end. He doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, but the person he really does not want to hurt is himself. Everything is secondary. Born to Be Blue is a solid movie – although I think it its efforts to avoid biopics clichés ends up feeling as calculated as those movies that fully give into them.