A few months ago, Don Cheadle played Miles Davis in jazz caper Miles Ahead. Now, Ethan Hawke plays Chet Baker in a similarly improvisational (and druggy) take on the jazz trumpeter’s life.
The film follows familiar riffs: a star fallen on hard times; a woman trying to keep him straight; “All I wanna do is play!” etc. But for all its clichés and coincidences, Born to be Blue is touching, funny and eminently watchable.
This is thanks largely to Hawke’s performance; one of the best of his career (no offence, Sinister). Ever the lovable slacker, Hawke empathetically captures Baker’s charisma as well as his frailties.
Carmen Ejogo is also wonderful as Baker’s fictional love interest, even though it’s essentially a beefed-up version of the role she played in Selma. It’s this warm, believable relationship that anchors the often contrived drama.
Robert Budreau writes and directs with wit, switching smoothly between Baker’s struggles in the late 1960s and a monochrome film-within-a-film about his 1950s heyday; a playful technique that juxtaposes myth with reality.
The result is a soulful, melancholy film about a man conflicted and addicted. Where Whiplash sought to excuse and even celebrate selfishness for the sake of success, Born to be Blue sensitively avoids adulation and revisionism.
This one may just be for jazz fans, but it gets under its subject’s skin in a way Miles Ahead never really does (not that it tries). Honest and intimate, Born to be Blue hits all the right notes.