Born to Be Blue begins with a hallucination: Chet Baker lying on the floor of a prison cell staring at a tarantula that’s crawling out of his trumpet. This foreshadows the hazy, smoke-filled fusion of fact and fantasy that characterizes the jazz trumpet legend’s unconventional biopic. The result is mesmerizing, sombre, and definitely worth the watch.
The film is set during the “Methodone Years,” a period of Baker’s life that fell between two phases of intense heroine addiction, and during which he rebuilt his jazz career after his career was derailed by his addiction. In the film, Baker (Ethan Hawke) falls in love with a woman named Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress who he meets while filming a biopic about his own life. This movie within a movie, which is presented in black and white, adds to the ambiguity between fact and fiction. It also offers glimpses of Baker’s past glory days, as well as hints at the seeds of his troubles: his rivalries with other musicians, his infidelity, his first time using heroin.
At first, this back and forth between past and present, black and white and color, makes Born to Be Blue a bit hard to follow: the chronology is unclear, and there are pieces missing. The initial sense of confusion adds to the intrigue and tone of the story. In the end, director Robert Budreau successfully ties the different time sequences together, giving the viewer a more complete story of Baker and his story.
The film is dark and full of disillusionment, but its compelling depiction of Chet’s struggle draws the sympathy of the audience. One scene in particular was difficult to watch: after a run-in with his dealer in which Chet has all of his teeth knocked out, he refuses to give up playing his trumpet. He sits in a bathtub, mouth full of blood, clearly in pain, and blows on his trumpet. Blood sprays out of the other side of the horn onto his white shirt. Jane later finds him passed out on the floor with a heroin needle in his arm, trumpet in his hand, clothes soaked in blood. It is a tragic image, and the first moment when the viewer truly realizes the intensity of Baker’s dependence on his instrument.
However, along with the struggle, there are moments of beauty that make the film worth the watch. Some of the happiest moments occur when Jane and Chet are living out of Jane’s van, parked by the ocean: they share an undeniable chemistry We also witness the uphill climb as Baker recovers and relearns his trumpet technique, practicing whenever and wherever he can. Baker’s raw, emotional music also adds some bittersweet flavor to the movie.
Although Born to Be Blue doesn’t focus on accurately portraying every detail of Baker’s life, it successfully captures the essence of a complex man, thanks to Ethan Hawke’s incredible performance. In the beginning, his self-absorption and lack of self-control are abundantly clear. It may be difficult to condone Baker’s character, but it’s also difficult not to feel sorry for him. Chet’s greatest moments of happiness come when he has both drugs and music: he says that the notes he plays become “wider and longer” when he is high, When he has neither, he believes he has nothing. His two loves in life are heroin and his trumpet, but they are also the dual causes of his downfall.
Even if you aren’t a fan of biopics, Born to Be Blue’s excellent acting and unconventional approach to the life of Chet Baker makes it worth the watch. Although you may not get the satisfaction of a happy ending, at least you will get a glimpse into the life of a man who is to this day shrouded in the alluring shadow of tragedy.
See this film and others at Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas New Haven, 86 Temple St. Call (203) 498-2500 or visit www.BowTieCinemas.com for advance tickets.