Born to Be Blue

| July 29, 2016

“Hello fear. Hello death. Fuck you.” These sparse lines, uttered in the opening sequences of the bio-pic Born to Be Blue, are a perfect summation of the film’s rascally, bruised antihero. Focusing on renegade trumpet player (and renegade horn dog) Chet Baker, Born to Be Blue is a penetrating, soulful, and, at times, unconventional musical biography. Melding fact and fiction, impressionism and realism, Born to Be Blue harnesses the basics of Baker’s tempestuous life and turns it into an absorbing portrait about love.

In Born to Be Blue, Ethan Hawke is Chet Baker. While this is a trite statement, particularly when describing actors playing real people, it still seems appropriate here. The actor plays Baker during a particularly intense period of his life: the late 60s, when Baker mounted a career comeback after a decade of heavy drug use and decline. Giving his body a sloping posture, his voice a wispy earnestness, and his eyes a wounded sense of self-destruction, the actor makes the man come back to life on-screen (the real Baker died in the 1980s). His work dominates the proceedings.

Born to Be Blue, which was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Robert Budreau, is under no illusions that it is presenting a highly factual account of Chet Baker’s life. This feels like the correct approach to take, as it affords performers like Hawke greater freedom. Similar freedom is extended to Hawke’s co-star, Carmen Ejogo, who plays Jane, an entirely fictional character who becomes romantically involved with Baker. Ejogo’s Jane is an actress who meets Baker while starring with him in a film about the musician’s earlier life and career, a situation based on when Baker did almost play himself in a film in real life.

These two actors develop a strong, palpable chemistry between their characters, although it is never exactly clear why Jane sticks around, considering how much of a mess Baker is. Still, their relationship forms the bedrock of the film’s story, underscoring all other events. Following them from a traumatic beating Baker suffers on their first date, to a long convalescence on his parents’ farm in Yale, OK, to finally Baker’s agonizing resurgence onto the East Coast jazz scene, the pairing of Jane and Chet is the heart of the film, and Hawke and Ejogo give this fictional relationship everything they have.

With such a vibrant relationship at its center, the film’s direction (and overall aesthetic palette) could have been relegated to little more than an afterthought. Yet, under Budreau’s confident hand, Born to Be Blue has style to match its dynamic thematic content.

Much of this again comes from the choice to dispense with a purely factual take on the musician’s life story. One example is how Born to Be Blue actually depicts the film about Baker (featuring Baker playing himself) as having actually been shot. These impressionistic, black and white scenes are set during the 50s, and are interspersed throughout the film’s main 60s storyline. They provide an alternative to your standard bio-pic formula, opening up a dialogue between Bakers of different eras, and showing how the seeds of the man’s destruction were percolating underneath the surface for years.

Of course, Born to Be Blue isn’t the true anti-biography it claims to be. While there are some notable deviations from standard fare like 2004’s Ray and 2005’s Walk the Line, the film still relies on semi-conventional psychological attributes, particularly its depiction of Baker’s parents. These people are depicted as little more than vapid country bumpkins, totally disparaging of Chet’s life and career.

The film is better when it tables such nonsense, and charts a course free from overt expositional information. Working with cinematographer Steve Cosens and a talented sound crew, Budreau creates several beautifully evocative sequences, which capture subject matter as vast as the Oklahoma plains, as intimate as Baker’s rendition of Fitzgerald “My Funny Valentine,” and as horrific as the musician trying to play the trumpet after being assaulted, which results in blood literally trickling out of horn’s bell.

The California coast is also captured in all its glory, and is the location where Jane and Chet spend a bulk of Born to Be Blue‘s running-time. There is a protracted feel to this section of the film, which follows the couple’s dual efforts to reenter their chosen art forms after dealing with Chet’s injury. This is one part of Born to Be Blue that could have used some serious editing, but it is also where the story’s thematic preoccupations come most fully to life.

While ostensibly a film about Chet Baker, Born to Be Blue actually functions as a more generalized story about love. Throughout the film, Chet Baker is often depicted as needy and even infantile, utterly dependent on Jane for emotional and physical support. And while there does seem to be love between the couple, it’s abundantly clear that it’s a fundamentally flawed type of love.

This flaw primarily emanates from Hawke’s volatile character, who, by film’s end, is revealed to be deeply insecure in both his personal and professional life. Budreau’s writing and directing articulates this quality in diverse ways, from Baker’s toxic competitiveness with Miles Davis (Kedar Brown), to his unhinged jealousy when Jane receives any male attention. Baker’s utter inability to deal with the vulnerability and sacrifice that inevitably comes along with the benefits of a relationship turns Born to Be Blue into a tragedy, where the viability of the character’s romantic relationship, musical comeback and fragile sobriety are thrown into question.

With such an agonizing figure at its center, Born to Be Blue can be difficult to watch. Yet, its direction, acting, and particularly Hawke’s powerful performance turn the film into something transcendent. It’s a strongly-realized story about the highs and lows of love, but also a classical portrait of someone who could have it all if he could only come to terms with himself.

Born to Be Blue is now available on BluRay and DVD. 

About the Author:

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic and writer who currently lives in Denver, CO.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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