“Born to Be Blue” Review: Ethan Hawke Shines as Jazz Junkie Chet Baker

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Last weekend, I saw “Born to Be Blue,” which stars Ethan Hawke in the role of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.

Baker was one of the fresh faces of jazz in the 50’s, and he had demons. A cheeky white boy famous for sweet-sounding “cool jazz,” he had a hard time earning the respect of giants like Miles Davis.

Oh, he also was major heroin addict.

The movie’s plot primarily deals with Baker’s return after getting his teeth broken over an unpaid debt, but much of what happens after that is fictionalized. Robert Budreau, who writes, produces AND directs, bases “Born to Be Blue” on a true story, the teeth being broken, but he takes many liberties with it.

And that’s okay, because biography is boring, and here, while the central narrative deals with Baker’s comeback, the larger story, the one really used to create the portrait of who Baker actually was, is about love.

In the beginning, Baker’s positioned as a bit of a Lothario, living loosely and dangerously — drugs, fame, sex; it all happens very fast. But then, his love interest in a movie he’s starring in about himself, Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo, winds up falling for him (partially because he won’t stop coming on to her).

After the assault, the movie inside the movie — nominally about his previous struggles — gets canceled, and he’s suddenly back at square one. Jane helps him, but his comeback turns out to be much harder, more difficult than Baker’s Wikipedia entry seems to indicate. When he’s finally ready, he’s faced with a series of pivotal choices. The consequences affect his life forever.

As Baker, Hawke is phenomenal, playing him as a romantic idealist, recalling his performance in Richard Linklater’s 1995 cult classic Before Sunrise. And Ejogo, too, is stellar; she plays Jane as her own kind of tragic case.

There is a real chemistry between the two actors, and the story benefits from their constant interplay — two dreamers, pushing themselves, willing themselves, driving themselves, in the face of what appears to be undeniable failure. Hers at the hands of time; his at the hands of heroin.

I couldn’t say for sure that Hawke plays the junkie role that well, because much of “Born to Be Blue” deals with a period of time when Baker is not on the stuff. But in the moments that heroin factors in — and these are very key moments— he does give Baker an anxious twitch, a frenetic ‘don’t-trust-this-guy’ kind of sensibility. You feel like he might fold over and die right on the screen. Or at the very least rob you before he does so.

What I most especially liked about this film was it does not drown itself in explanation, as most big-budget Hollywood films tend to do. Perhaps owing to its small aspirations, it jumps right into the story and uses the movie-within-a-movie plot device, plus flashbacks, to kind of get you up to speed on Baker’s whole deal. It’s less biography than character study, and thankfully, you don’t feel like the actors are talking at you for 90 minutes straight; nor are they talking among themselves.

“Born to Be Blue” is a delightful little movie and I highly recommend it.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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