Typical music biopics follow a standard arc of rise and fall for their subject, but Robert Budreau’s new film Born to Be Blue starts just after a fall. The question, then, is whether it ends with a rise - and the answer depends on your perspective.
Ethan Hawke stars as famous jazz trumpeter Chet Baker who, at the beginning of the film, is addicted to heroin and wasting away in an Italian prison cell during the 1960’s. Baker is released into the arms of a Hollywood Producer to star in his own biopic back in the United States. With talks of making a musical comeback, his newfound sobriety, and a date lined up with with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo), life is looking up - until ghosts from Baker’s past return, leaving him unable to play trumpet. Jane sticks by him as he relearns his instrument of choice; but can he keep everything going and find the right life for him?
In many ways, the story progresses like any other musical biopic, with obstacles and dramatic relationships, all in a bid to rise to the top. Even down to the not-strictly-true version of events portrayed (which only uses select facts and life events, changing the rest for the sake of a good film), every hallmark of a standard biography is present. The clichés abound, but despite a lot of ‘old hat’, everything is put together well. The art design is fantastic, creating a believable world, and the cinematography features some particularly strong moments. The ending even manages to stand out with a level of moral ambiguity that leaves the audience with fascinating internal debate.
The best reason to see this film (especially for those who don’t typically listen to jazz) is the acting; Hawke portrays Baker with such authenticity, elevating the entire film from a simple tale of sin and redemption to a morally grey area that questions whether the character has done anything wrong. Some particularly strong scenes include an argument with Jane (played brilliantly by Ejogo as a strong woman with her own goals), tense words with Baker’s father (legendary character actor Stephen McHattie), and especially the final scene as Baker debates with his producer and business partner Dick (Callum Keith Rennie). With such strong performances from the entire cast, Hawke still manages to stand out as the biggest reason that this film is worth a watch.
Although the film may not bring much of novelty to the biopic genre, there is a lot to enjoy. Between exceptional performances (especially from the star), beautiful period-appropriate design, and a few local connections - the director was born in London and the film was shot in Sudbury - this film is certainly worth a watch. As with any musical biography, the music is fantastic if it’s to your taste; for jazz fans, this one may even be a must-see.
3.5 (out of 5)
Thomas Vickers is a London-based filmmaker and The Beat Magazine's resident film critic.