Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke brings Chet Baker — the "James Dean of jazz" — back to life

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in the music biopic 'Born to Be Blue.' Credit: Caitlin Cronenberg/IFC Films

Everything that makes Ethan Hawke an extraordinary actor — his energy, his empathy, his fearless, vanity-free eagerness to explore the deeper recesses of a character — is on view in Born to Be Blue. Hawke plays Chet Baker, the jazz artist on trumpet and vocals who hit heartthrob status in the 1950's and whose lifelong addiction to heroin led to his 1988 death at 58, from an accidental fall off the second-floor of a hotel in Amsterdam. Though that précis sounds like the standard peaks-and valleys clichés of the Hollywood biopic, I'm pleased to report that nothing about Born to Be Blue is standard. As brilliantly acted by Hawke and fluidly written and directed by Robert Budreau, the film plays riffs on Baker's life without  adhering to facts or formula. And yet you leave the film with a fuller understanding of who Baker was and what drove him.

Budreau, a Canadian filmmaker, merely sketches in Baker's early career as the James Dean of jazz. He picks up his story in the 1960s in an Italian jail when Baken, in prison on drug charges, accepts an offer from a producer to star in a film about his own life. Dino DeLaurentis actually made such an offer, but the film was never made. Here we see Baker actually trying to portray himself onscreen, but unable to simplify his complex life. Budreau resists any similar simplification. It's on set that Baker meets Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress representing the key women in his life. Making Jane a composite figure could have been a lazy trick. But the British Ejogo, so good as Coretta Scott King in Selma, erases any doubts in her deep dive of a performance. Ejogo and Hawke put real erotic heat into this relationship, with Hawke radiating the charm, humor and sexual magnetism that might persuade a woman to stay loyal to a man whose two main addictions are fucking and smack.

It's Jane who stands by Baker when he gets his teeth knocked out by thugs in a drug-related assault. Unable to play his horn, Baker is fitted for dentures to help restore his embouchure. But the process is painful, causing bleeding gums and a crisis of confidence, made worse by Baker's feeling that jazz great Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) has it in for him. After a visit to the Baker home in Oklahoma, where Chet's father (Stephen McHattie) mocks his son's dreamboat status, Chet and Jane settle in Los Angeles in a VW bug parked near the beach. And Baker slowly works on rebuilding his instrument. Getting straight through methadone treatment is another step in the comeback Baker wants to build with his skeptical producer Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie excels in the role).

That's what passes for plot. What more than passes for haunting, hypnotic filmmaking is the way Hawke invests himself in Baker. He makes us feel the act of will it takes for Baker to blow out a note through his injured mouth. Kevin Turcotte plays Baker's horn solos, but Hawke himself provides the whispery vocals that made Baker such a unique artist, especially  his impeccable phrasing on "My Funny Valentine" and "I've Never Been in Love Before." If you want more details on Baker's life, try Let's Get Lost, Bruce Weber's superb 1989 documentary on Baker's life.

Still, in its narrower focus, Born to Be Blue goes deeper and feels more intimate. "I want my life back," Baker says at one point, referring to his jones for smack. Budreau's film makes no excuses or judgements. There's just Hawke, brilliant at drilling down to the core of a man who let his addictions get inextricably tangled up in his art. This potent provocation of a movie says, yeah, Baker got lost, but look what he found.