Not too long after Chet Baker’s death in 1988, filmmaker/photographer Bruce Weber released Let’s Get Lost, his documentary portrait of the jazz trumpeter/singer. Though Weber gets into biographical details—Baker’s early promise in the 1950s as a kind of James Dean of jazz; his womanizing ways; his life-long struggles with drug addiction even in his twilight years—the film is as much about the director’s own infatuation with the image of Chet Baker (his matinee-idol looks, his soulful trumpeting, his coolly dispassionate singing) as it was about the artist himself. As harrowing and tragic and as beautiful as it is—with Jeff Preiss’s 16mm black-and-white cinematography vividly evoking a sense of glamorous ruin—Let’s Get Lost is, to some degree, limited by Weber’s obsession with its subject as an emblem rather than as a human being.
So, in cinema at least, there’s still room to fill in the gaps Weber’s film leaves. That’s where writer/director Robert Budreau’s new biopic Born to Be Blue comes in. More than just a showcase for Ethan Hawke’s interpretation of Baker, Budreau’s film strips away the idol-worship of Weber’s documentary and attempts to get at the self-destructive personality underneath.
Perhaps the wisest move Budreau makes in that regard is to forgo the epic breadth of other music biopics and focus on a particular period in Baker’s life: the few months after a brutal beating left his lips and teeth damaged enough that there was a strong possibility he’d never be able to perform again. Though, to address some backstory, Budreau has come up with a fairly imaginative framing device: an apocryphal, aborted attempt at a Baker-starring biopic about his own life, the black-and-white remnants of which make up the film’s “flashbacks.” Budreau isn’t so interested in depicting the facts of Baker’s life as he is in capturing an impression of it.
The framing device also introduces aspiring actress Jane (Carmen Ejogo), Baker’s love interest in Born to Be Blue and a composite of all of his girlfriends and wives over the years (Jane plays a previous girlfriend in the biopic-within-a-biopic). She is also, to some degree, our audience surrogate. Through her perspective we see Baker in all his glories and faults, in his romanticism, his insecurities, his single-minded desire to devote his life only to music—and most of all, his struggle to stay away from heroin while trying to restart his career.
It’s a tribute to Budreau’s dramatic resourcefulness that, within the temporal and character-based boundaries he’s dictated, he’s often able to suggest Baker’s complex inner life with the barest of means. He presents us only a couple scenes between Baker and his father (Stephen McHattie) back in his Yale, Oklahoma, hometown, but those are enough to hint at a whole ocean of disappointment and confusion between the two. Upon his son presenting a signed copy of one of his albums as a gift, his father asks Chet, “Why did you have to sing [“My Funny Valentine”] like a girl?”—a line of dialogue that sharply implies a fundamental gulf artistically and personally. Baker’s clingy side is economically represented by his anguished reaction upon hearing that Jane won’t accompany him to New York for his comeback gig at Birdland. Most heartbreakingly of all, though, is Budreau’s devastatingly simple way of depicting Baker’s relapse into drug addiction: A mere face-stroking gesture on Baker’s part scans as an unmistakable junkie habit.
For all of Budreau’s writing/directing skill, however, Born to Be Blue all comes down to Ethan Hawke’s take on Baker. Early on in the film, Jane observes a key contradiction to the man, wondering aloud how someone as crude as he was in his personal life could make such romantic music. The answer can be heard in the voice Hawke adopts for his performance: a breathy high-pitched drawl that exudes a child-like innocence and passion which gives credence to the James Dean comparisons many made for him early in his career. It’s a remarkably sensitive performance—but perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise coming from Hawke, a performer often known for his ability to mingle masculinity with vulnerability, whether as Jesse in the Before… series, as Hamlet in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization of Shakespeare’s play or even as Denzel Washington’s more innocent counterpart in Training Day.
Comparisons to the real Chet Baker are ultimately irrelevant. Just as Budreau is more interested in an impression of Baker rather than absolute fidelity to the facts of his life, Hawke captures the artist’s alternately wonderful and tragic essence. In this way he brings heft to perhaps the film’s most sobering insight: As much as it ultimately destroyed him, Baker maybe needed his drug habit to be the renowned performer every single portrayal of him insists he was.
Director: Robert Budreau
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Tony Nappo, Stephen NcHattie, Janet-Laine Green
Release Date: March 25, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies or writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.