As a music drama loosely inspired by Chet Baker’s life, “Born to be Blue” tries a little different thing. While mainly focusing on a melancholic late period of this legendary American jazz musician’s life, it freely mixes reality and fiction via its unconventional storytelling approach akin to jazz improvisation, and it is interesting to see how this unconventional approach works with its bluesy mood, sound, and texture. Although it eventually feels conventional as arriving at its predestined finale, it still looks and sounds good, and it is also supported by two solid performances worthwhile to watch.
The early scenes in the movie show Baker (Ethan Hawke) on the verge of a bottom to hit in 1966. Struggling with his heroin addiction as usual, he is recently hired to play himself for a movie based on his early years, and that is how he gets to know Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress who is cast to play Baker’s wife in the movie. While Baker did appear in a handful of movies during the 1950-60s, it should be mentioned that the movie production shown in “Born to Be Blue” is purely fictional, and so is Jane, who is a composite character of several women in Baker’s real life.
Outside the movie set, Baker and Jane find themselves enjoying each other’s company more, but then there comes a big blow to his life and career. Shortly after their first private time, a group of gangs who have an unfinished drug business with Baker suddenly appear in front of them, and he gets a serious injury as badly beaten by these gangs. Besides his lost upper front teeth, his embouchure is irrevocably damaged, and that means he will never play trumpet as well as before, even if he manages to play it again.
He hits his bottom pretty fast. The production of his movie is quickly shut down as soon as the news about his injury comes out. His long-suffering manager Dick (Callum Keith Rennie) finally decides that enough is enough and walks away from his problematic musician. In addition to his following financial problem, Baker also needs to remain employed due to his probation period, and one brief scene shows him working at a gas station (he really went through such a humiliating time like that in real life).
While Baker feels broken and devastated by this gloomy situation, Jane stands by him because, well, she loves and cares about a man who really needs help despite all those possibly incorrigible flaws of his. After he cannot pay the rent for his apartment anymore, they begin to live together modestly in her minivan, and Chet finds solace and comfort from her as trying to take his first step toward recovery and comeback.
Leisurely following Baker’s slow, tentative progress, the movie doles out small intimate moments to observe. When Baker and Jane visit his hometown in Oklahoma at one point, his mother welcomes them in contrast to his father, a former musician who does not dislike his son but remains sternly skeptical about his son’s recent recovery. When Baker and Jane are visited by Jane’s parents later in the story, her father also shows the same concern as any sensible father would, and that naturally leads to an awkward moment among everyone.
As Jane tries to advance her own acting career through one audition after another, Baker comes to rise again thank to her support. Although his first public performance after the injury is pretty tacky to say the least, it does get attention because he is still famous, and then he gets employed as a studio session player not long after that. As finding himself promoted by Dick again, he shows others that he has not lost all of his ability and talent, and we get a soulful music performance scene featuring one of his most famous songs.
The director/writer Robert Budreau and his cinematographer Steve Cosens make sure that every scene in the film is filled with dry, somber ambience to reflect its hero’s melancholy, and the score by David Braid, Todor Kobakov, and Steve London is mixed well with familiar jazz songs on the soundtrack. The movie also utilizes the fictional movie in its story as one of its storytelling tools, and this provides us a glimpse into Baker’s relationship with Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) and Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) during his early years of stardom.
Looking as dashing and boyish as Baker, Hawke smoothly slips into the role in his thoughtful performance. His character’s narrative arch may be predictable, but there is always a certain amount of nervousness around his low-key acting as Baker looks unsure about whether he can really make a comeback, and Hawke did a good job of injecting dramatic tension into his music performance scenes without emphasizing it too much (While his trumpet performance in the film was done by Kevin Turcotte, he provided the vocal for two music performance scenes).
On the opposite, Carmen Ejogo, a wonderful actress who should have been noticed more for holding her own place in front of David Oyelowo in “Selma” (2014), is terrific as a woman who may tolerate her lover’s many flaws but sticks to her integrity none the less. She and Hawke play so well with each other during their scenes that we can clearly sense what is happening between them during the finale – even before a certain revealing shot is inserted into the middle of the sequence.
“Born to Be Blue” is a minor work compared to other notable jazz movies such as Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” (1989) and Bertrand Tavernier’s “Round Midnight” (1986), but you will probably enjoy its mood and performance regardless of your background knowledge on Baker’s life, which was far longer than his idol Charlie Parker’s but did not end well like many other famous troubled musicians’ life. Its music is basically a familiar one from the start, but “Born to Be Blue” serves us a nice improvisation to appreciate.