The music biopic is hazardous terrain for any filmmaker to negotiate as it provides so much opportunity for cliché and calamity. Walk the Line did a decent job with Johnny Cash’s story, but for every passable effort there’s plenty more that have fallen by the cinematic wayside. Let’s just mention Oliver Stone’s The Doors and leave it at that.
Thankfully, Born to Be Blue, in which Ethan Hawke plays Chet Baker, a man as famous for his prodigious appetite for hard drugs as for his straightforward and tuneful West Coast jazz, is one of the better music biopics of recent times. It doesn’t possess the haunting rawness of Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary on Baker, Let’s Get Lost, but it deserves credit for providing an entertaining and unvarnished snapshot of the man and his music.
In the spirit of jazz, the film is experimental, but, appropriately for Baker, not too much. There’s an initial black-and-white dash through scenes that take in his debut at the legendary Birdland club, complete with Miles Davis scowling in the corner. Baker is then dragged back to his hotel room by a woman from the crowd, where he is introduced to heroin for the first time.
Just as this noirish cartoon seems to be what we’re getting for the duration, Technicolor – and reality – kicks in. It’s the late 1960s and we’re on the set of a film about Baker’s life. From there we follow him through the mid-point in his career as he does his best to kick his drugs habit and rekindle his success as a jazz man.
Hawke is excellent as Baker, giving a weighty and complex performance. There’s also strong support from Carmen Ejogo as Baker’s girlfriend Jane (a composite of different women from his life) and Stephen McHattie as Baker’s glowering, bitter father.
Director Robert Budreau shoots everything with an unfussy simplicity. The camera is kept still as Hawke performs a beautiful rendition of Baker’s signature tune My Funny Valentine, with the rendition allowed to speak (and sing) for itself. Budreau also conjures several more memorable images. After being attacked by drug pushers he owes cash to, Baker has his teeth knocked out.
His subsequent attempt to play his trumpet ends with blood pouring from his mouth and instrument. The script provides the odd bum note. After Baker is attacked, one of the assailants shouts “No more jazz!” at him, in what could be one of the campest conclusions to a scene of bloody violence ever included in a film.
But despite this, Born to Be Blue manages, right up to its bitterly inevitable ending, to stay true to itself and to Baker, a musician who could conjure great beauty no matter how lost he was.
This article first appeared in the July 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.