Film Review: Born to Be Blue

Dwight Brown | 4/6/2016, 2 p.m.
“I did it my way…” No, Ethan Hawke doesn’t sing those lyrics in this faux bio/film about jazz great Chet ...
Ethan Hawke (left) and Carmen Ejogo star in “ Born to Be Blue.” (IFC Films)

— “I did it my way…” No, Ethan Hawke doesn’t sing those lyrics in this faux bio/film about jazz great Chet Baker. But judging by his thoroughly convincing performance and writer/director Robert Budreau’s impressionistic screenplay and artsy direction, that was their mindset during this movie’s production. Convey the feeling of Baker’s existence, not a blow-by-blow, song-to-song, drug-to-drug retelling of his infamous life. They follow their instincts, which lead them to a very creative place.

As you watch Chet Baker (Hawke) flounder and struggle for a comeback, you may wonder what on screen is real and what is a concoction. Ignore that impulse. Let his story unfold. Everything will seem plausible enough. Credit Budreau for setting a dreamy mood that depicts the 1950s in black and white and the 1960s in just a few sparse colors (art direction Joel Richardson). The moody cinematography (Steve Cosens) and production design (Aidan Leroux) add atmosphere. The alluring trumpet playing (Kevin Turcotte) and score (composer David Braid) grip the soul. Go back in time to the sweet pocket of the jazz era.

In the ‘50s Chet Baker achieves great success in the jazz world based on his GQ looks, sweet trumpet playing and a talent for simple singing. He doesn’t have Mel Torme or Tony Bennett’s pipes. He uses his voice like an instrument, making his vocals sound as pure as a horn. Ladies flock to his performances. Jazz greats like Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and Dizzie Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard) embrace him. A producer wants him to star in a bio film. And so he does, and that’s where he meets the love of his life, his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo, Selma).

In the 1960s, Baker finds himself in an Italian jail cell, incarcerated for drug use. He has been beaten up during a drug deal gone bad, and has lost his teeth. Heroin addiction makes him fidgety and irresponsible. Yet he has his music and hope for a return to his successful career, even though addiction sabotages his efforts. Jane accompanies him on his bumpy journey. She gives up her acting career to help him get back on his feet. Try as he may, even with the support of his producer Dick (Callum Keith Rennie, Californication), he falls off the wagon as much as he climbs on. He plays jazz, but his life is a case of the blues.

Watching Baker’s misery, insecurities, failings and accomplishments, for 98 minutes, is never less than magnetic. By all accounts, it is the tortured, train-wreck life that the real Chesney Henry “Chet” Baker, Jr. led. (Check out the biography Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, or the documentary Let’s Get Lost), His essence rings true here, regardless of what is real and what is not. The jumbled storytelling, the music, the performances and direction feel alternately like B&W photos coming to life or modern mid-century sketches turning into live action.

An unimaginative director would have done a paint-by-numbers bio/drama. Budreau, however, formed a creative idea, pulled his tech crew and cast into his dream world and completed his concept perfectly.