If the musical biopic feels stale to you, then check out the defiantly non-traditional Born to Be Blue, which takes an impressionistic look at the troubled life of famed jazz musician Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke in yet another superb lead performance. Independently financed by multiple international production companies, the film was written, produced, and directed by Robert Budreau, who clearly took great pains to avoid anything remotely resembling a staid approach to his storytelling, instead opting for a unique narrative conceit and tricky overall construction to showcase a man and his turbulent yet incredibly successful and influential life. Because this film takes a very unique approach to the material, and because it doesn’t follow a customary trajectory, you might not learn a ton more about Baker than you already knew coming in. But in terms of cinematic information delivery, this is fresh stuff.
In 1966, Baker was contracted to play himself in a Hollywood production that would’ve detailed his early years and the beginnings of his heroin addiction, so Budreau adroitly used this event as a way of presenting his film, bouncing back and forth in time, and showing Baker in various states of mental and physical harmony and despair. Most disturbingly, Born to Be Blue highlights the extremely tough period in Baker’s life after he was attacked and viciously beaten by thugs, who were upset over being stiffed on cash during a drug deal. The beating was so bad that Baker was left unable to play the trumpet any better than a beginner for an extended period of time, as his teeth and mouth were smashed into oblivion.
Co-starring the absolutely gorgeous Carmen Ejogo as a composite of multiple women that Baker crossed paths with, the film is really and truly the Ethan Hawke show, as he cuts a tragic portrait of a man unable to control his inner demons, while still pounding out one amazing musical number after another, all the while attracting a huge fan base and tons of female admirers. His intense rivalry with Miles Davis is also offered up in a few juicy bits; this was a cutting edge and extremely competitive world that these musicians found themselves in, with each artist looking to find their particular spot and role in history. The entire film almost carries the whiff of a dream, some sort of druggy remembrance that moves in strange ways.
The film’s jazz score was composed by pianist David Braid, while the audio from the various trumpet performances was preformed by Kevin Turcotte, with Hawke taking lessons from musician Ben Promane and studying Turcotte’s recording videos as a way of learning how to appropriately mime all of the sheet music. His performance never once feels anything less than wholly committed and fully functional on a musical level, and totally engaged on an emotional one. After debuting at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations section, the film found very limited theatrical release earlier this year thru IFC, and is now available to stream on various platforms, and is also available on DVD for rent thru Netflix and for purchase at numerous physical media retailers; no Blu-ray has yet been made available.
Review by Nick Clement