One of the most formulaic film genres is the musician biopic. You know the general plot points: A brilliant, troubled musician hits early success, then struggles to escape the clutches of addiction, only to recover and make a comeback that nobody expected he or she was capable of making (except for a loving significant other). Born to Be Blue, a biopic about jazz legend Chet Baker’s late 1960s comeback written and directed by Robert Budreau (That Beautiful Somewhere), doesn’t stray much from that formula, but there is enough originality in how Born to Be Blue treats its subject and his career arc that sets it apart from the typical musician biopic.
Born to Be Blue begins with Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) lying on the floor of a prison in Italy in 1966. He is sprung from prison by a Hollywood producer who wants Baker to star in a biopic of his own life. Both his beautiful co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo), whom he begins dating, and manager Dick (Callum Keith Rennie) hope that Baker can overcome his heroin addiction and sustain his comeback. Of course, he can’t — and even worse, he is attacked by drug dealers, which destroys his face and makes him unable to play the trumpet. Flashbacks to his earlier years (depicted in black and white) demonstrate that for his entire career Baker has felt intimidated and dismissed by jazz icon Miles Davis (Kedar Brown), who resents the “Great White Hope” attention Baker receives. He struggles through his recovery — from both drugs and his injured lips and teeth — working at a gas station and playing humiliating gigs in pizza restaurants to regain his ability and confidence to make his comeback a reality.
Born to Be Blue bills itself as a “reimagining” of Baker’s comeback that “Creatively blend[s] fact with fiction.” That’s shorthand for saying that Budreau plays fast and loose with the timeline and the facts of Baker’s life, and if those phrases didn’t appear in the marketing it is exactly the type of biopic that experts like to pick apart. But it gives Budreau some leeway to tell a more interesting narrative.
Unsurprisingly, Hawke’s performance carries the film. It’s obvious that he’s passionate about Baker, and in particular Hawke is wonderful in the performing scenes. He performs a haunting rendition of Baker’s standard “My Funny Valentine” that is the film’s highlight. In fact, there’s no mistaking that the best aspect of this film is the music, followed by the relationship between Baker and Jane. Ejogo’s Jane is the latest in the line of long-suffering musicians’ wives/girlfriends in biopics, but her character is different because she has ambitions of her own. She doesn’t just sit at home (well, in this case a van, since that’s where they live) and yell at Baker every time he returns home a broken man.
Baker fans might not like how the film veers from true events, but thematically Born to Be Blue fits Baker as a musician and a cultural force in jazz. Fans of biopics will also appreciate how the film is a slightly different take on the well-worn musician biopic.
Born to Be Blue will be released in limited theaters on March 25 and on VOD on March 31.