Not everyone can exist under the unbelievable pressure of genius.
Avoiding the standard bio pic trappings, Born To Be Blue is a vivid and psychedelic reimagining of a key period in the life of jazz trumpet virtuoso Chet Baker which manages to come to life by thankfully avoiding and standard story telling trappings.
Locked in an Italian jail and forgotten by the world is where we meet Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke), in on drug charges and in need of a second chance. One arrives when he is bailed out to play himself in a movie about his life. The movie goes nowhere, but as art imitates reality he falls for Jane (Carmen Ejogo) the woman playing his wife. Struggling to stay clean, Chet is faced with even bigger problems as he struggles to find his musical voice after taking a savage beating one night and losing his teeth in a drug deal gone. Looking to regain that personal peak and be accepted on the stages of Birdland and from his idols like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis that he strived to surpass, he is forced to ask himself if he can stay off the drugs and still be the musician that he once was.
Using Baker’s life as more of an inspiration then sticking to the hard facts actually worked in the films favor as Born To Be Blue flows like a piece of improvised music thanks to some very solid direction and some stellar leading performances.
Writer/Director Robert Budreau puts this together with an unquestionable command of the material and a masterful flow as it plays close enough to the truth without feeling like a pure history lesson. He keeps landmarks fairly abstract and allows us as an audience to get into the mindset of a man who was desperate to be loved by his peers to the point that it became a demon which would ultimately swallow him whole. He clearly picked the most interesting years of his life as it explores all of his efforts into making a comeback to the pinnacle of the jazz music world. We character over legacy and that is what keeps us engaged as we have actors who are necessarily going through the motions but building actual character.
In these past few years, Ethan Hawke has found a unique ability to be able to choose and hook into some unique projects and deliver some excellent performances. Here as Chet he manages to be equal parts ego and humility here as a man who is seemingly always one step behind the demons in his life. He provides Chet with genuine humanity as he walks a tight rope between his genius and his weakness, and it’s a performance that comes alive as we immediately empathize with him…but don’t necessarily like him. Opposite him, Carmen Ejogo is an absolute dream as his better half Jane as she has an excellent rapport with Hawke and the two make very beautiful music together as she commands the screen just as effectively here as Hawke does. After strong turns here and in Selma she is without a doubt one to keep an eye on. The balance of the ensemble rounds out with the likes of Calum Keith Rennie and Stephen McHattie among others who all do fine work as both Hawke and Ejogo craft a tragic love story that we just can wrapped up in.
All in all, Born To Be Blue is at its heart a romance between a man and his ambitions, his muses and his vices all rolled up into one and it breaks the convention of the standard bio pic to make for something quite memorable.