A variation on the theme of Chet Baker: Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue takes some lesser-known points from the life of the junkie cool jazz icon (an aborted movie project with Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, the half-dozen forgotten albums he cut for World Pacific in 1966, etc.) and reworks them into a fantasy anti-biopic. It’s more conventional than it seems at first, opening with swipes at the phoniness of birth-to-death musician biopics—via a black-and-white film-within-the-film—before indulging in some phoniness of its own. But while there isn’t much to distinguish Born To Be Blue’s dramatic stakes from any number of stories about self-destructive, self-centered artists (or “movies about jazz musicians,” as they’re more commonly known), the film is given a spark of life by the inspired casting of Ethan Hawke. The actor may not look a lick like Baker, but his weathered pretty-boy face fits the troubled trumpeter-vocalist’s legend to a T; in a delicate performance, he emotes subtle notes of tragedy and manipulation through a wheezy, upper-register voice.
Nowadays, Baker is arguably better known as a character than as a musician: The square-jawed dreamboat of 1950s jazz, who became addicted to heroin; lost his career, his teeth, and his looks; and made a comeback in Europe, leading an itinerant life before tumbling to his death out of a hotel window, strung out, at age 58. But though Baker was seen as something of a musical square even at the height of his popularity, he could be a remarkable player, with a cautiously phrased sound that evoked the same mood of melancholy and intimacy as his wispy singing voice. Here, he is mostly seen in the mid-1960s slump of his career, his teeth knocked out by a drug dealer. He is painting studio walls for extra cash, learning to play with dentures on (one of the movie’s more memorable images is of blood trickling out of the bell of his trumpet), and pursuing a relationship with actress Jane (Carmen Ejogo), a composite character who is introduced playing a composite character in the aforementioned film-within-a-film, a Baker biopic.
It’s one of several self-reflexive winks in Budreau’s script, though he drops most of the I’m Not There-esque refractions early on, opting for a straightforward, largely fictional drama about a man at a crossroads, forced to pick between love and addiction. Ocean coastlines and dressing rooms provide backdrops for most of the pivotal scenes, suggesting anticipation and uncertainty. But this is a movie of modest scale, fitted to Hawke’s performance, which is sensitive, but often curbs sympathy, portraying Baker as a man who knows exactly what he’s doing as he betrays the trust of those around him. If Born To Be Blue has a serious structural flaw, it’s that Jane proves to be a largely thankless role, with long-suffering as her defining trait, accented by looks of disappointment. Callum Keith Rennie makes a more effective foil as producer Dick Bock, portrayed here as a man trying to walk the line between encouragement and enabling. He’s the one who’s backstage with Baker in the finale, a comeback performance at the legendary New York jazz club Birdland, with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in attendance; Jane is just another member of the audience.