Ethan Hawke toots the horn for Chet Baker in this not-quite-a-biopic that takes jazzy liberties with the truth
Jazz trumpeters are having a surprising cinematic moment. Already this year Miles Davis has had the biopic treatment, care of Don Cheadle’s ambitious but messy Miles Ahead. Here, Ethan Hawke toots the horn for Chet Baker. If someone can bash out something on Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong before the year’s out then we’ve got ourselves a trend.
As was the case with Miles Ahead, Born To Be Blue is not, strictly speaking, a biopic. It takes its own jazzy liberties with the truth, instead preferring to peel away parts of Baker’s persona and graft them together to tell the story of a man torn between self-importance and self-destruction.
Director Robert Budreau sets out his intention to be honestly dishonest in the opening scenes. In smoky black and white, a trumpeter plays a confident solo in a jazz club then slinks back to a quiet dressing room where a groupie tumbles onto him, offering sex and a heroin syringe. As his wife bursts in, a director calls cut. We’re watching Baker starring in the film of his own life and, he admits, most of it’s not true. The rest of the film is not so tricksy, but that little reveal gives it licence to experiment.
Largely, it’s a successful experiment. It tells three love stories, as Baker falls hard for music, drugs and Jane (Carmen Ejogo as a fictional composite of ex-loves). He wants each of them powerfully, doesn’t understand the grip any of them have over him and knows he can’t have any one of them without losing another. Because it’s chosen to throw out the truth for some seductive lies, Budreau’s film keeps a sense of surprise and discovery. It’s a story that sucks you in because it tells of a man of many layers, rather than telling you about someone you already know.
Ethan Hawke has become a much more interesting actor as he’s aged. The eagerness to please that used to emanate from his performances has drifted away, leaving an actor of laidback charisma. His Chet Baker may not be the man as he actually was, but he’s one you want to get to know better and one you want to be better.
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejego
Director: Robert Budreau
Release date: 29 Jul, 2016