In a cinematic landscape awash with hairsplittingly literal musical biopics, it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker film, “Born to Be Blue,” is not a Chet Baker biopic at all. It is, instead, a film about a character who happens to share a name and a significant number of biographical similarities with Chet Baker, taking the legendary West Coast jazz musician’s life as though it were merely a chord chart from which to launch an improvised set of new melodies. Upending the conventions of the musical rise-and-fall formula while still offering a relatively straightforward three-act narrative, the film is anchored by an Ethan Hawke performance that ranks among the best of his career. It’s hard to say how much of a draw it will be commercially: Jazz purists will likely be confused, and viewers expecting anything resembling a primer on Baker’s music will be frustrated. But Budreau isn’t out to make a live-action dramatization of Baker’s Wikipedia page here; he’s trying to make a real film.
Historical liberties and all, the pic does offer a brisk overview of Baker’s early career, albeit in a nicely cheeky fashion. Starting off in the late 1960s, the film opens on Baker in an Italian prison, where a mysterious Hollywood producer comes to offer him a movie role. Cut to a black-and-white flashback, and we see the younger Baker pushing past screaming groupies for his debut performance at jazz mecca Birdland in 1954, where an emcee hails him as “the inventor of West Coast swing, and the No. 1 trumpet player on the DownBeat reader’s poll” while an unimpressed Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) holds court in the back. Later that night, he stumbles back to his hotel with a female admirer, who promptly introduces him to heroin, only to have his girlfriend (Carmen Ejogo) arrive home early, furious.
Just when one starts to laugh at the rapid-fire pileup of cliches, the scene scrambles, and we see Baker — now back in color — on a film set complaining that the depiction is all wrong. He’s been cast to play himself in a film about his own life, and things aren’t going well: Having already thrown his musical career away through heroin addiction, he’s now being a pest on the set, and his costar Jane (Ejogo) — who is tasked with playing a composite of Baker’s past love interests — complains that she can’t understand why her character would have stayed with him. Talking her into a date at a bowling alley all the same, Baker works his charms on the young actress, yet he’s viciously assaulted outside by a group of dealers he owes money to, losing his front teeth.
A good portion of the above incidents actually happened: Baker was indeed imprisoned in Italy on drug charges, his teeth were badly damaged in a mugging (the nature of which remains in dispute), and a Hollywood producer (namely Dino De Laurentiis) actually did try to cast him in his own never-filmed biopic. They didn’t necessarily happen in quite that sequence, however, nor was there actually a Jane, who plays a composite of Baker’s love interests in both the film and the film within it.
While this opening suggests “Born to Be Blue” will be a protean metafictional exercise, these scenes mostly serve as the film’s warning not to take anything that follows as gospel, and the rest of the narrative proceeds more or less straightforwardly. Beaten too badly to play his horn, and going through methadone treatment for his raging smack habit, Baker looks to be facing an early end to his career, though Jane finds herself inexplicably drawn to him.
The two take a trip to Baker’s hometown in Oklahoma to recuperate, and then head back to Los Angeles, where they live in a VW bug parked alongside the beach. Outfitted with a none-too-reliable set of dentures, Baker must essentially relearn basic trumpet technique: His first attempt to play leaves him soaked in blood, while a later attempt to sit in with a pizza parlor jazz band sees the hobbyist musicians advising him to practice a little more, having no idea who they were just jamming with. He also has to stay clean long enough to convince his old producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie) that he’s ready to mount a comeback, and Jane serves as his rock as he pulls himself back together.
Though it might not sound like it from that description, “Born to Be Blue” is frequently funny, and offers a twisted yet undeniably sexy romance at its center. Much of the film’s humor comes from Hawke, who seems to recognize that even hardcore lifelong drug addicts can often be quite charming and sweet when they want to be (if they weren’t, it would be hard to stay addicts for very long). His Baker is capable of being inspired and loving, yet fatally incapable of predicting the effects his own decisions will have on others, and he’s clearly read enough of his own press to believe himself a genius, which gives his horror at his newly decimated musical chops an existential edge.
Ejogo does extremely well to make a human character out of what is literally a fictional contrivance, and her interplay with Hawke resembles a hopeless high-school romance taking place long after both parties should be old enough to know better.
As for the larger point the film is trying to make about Baker with its slippery sense of reality and multiterraced archness, that’s a harder nut to crack. Budreau is clearly inspired by Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” which created a cinematic corollary to Bob Dylan’s chameleonic career by treating each of his various personae as entirely different characters. Budreau’s objectives aren’t quite as obvious, though it’s commendable that he’s managed to deliver a film that’s largely accessible in spite of its formal mischief.
Steve Cosens’ photography is excellent here, meshing with the pic’s production design to craft a recognizable yet dreamily artificial 1960s Californian milieu. As for the music, David Braid does very clever work with trumpeter Kevin Turcotte to chart Baker’s evolving abilities, suggesting the playing of a man attempting to deliver highly developed musical ideas through an unreliable medium.