Chet Baker could do a few things well. He blew his trumpet, and he blew up his life. “I’ve got some habits,” he explains, in writer/director Robert Budreau’s TIFF premiere “Born to Be Blue,” a quasi-biopic that falls somewhere between “Ray” and “Love and Mercy” in terms of convention and experimentation. The movie’s message as a portrait of a troubled genius is ultimately a conventional one, but the film has unexpected ways of getting there.
The heart of the movie is Ethan Hawke, turning in the role of his career as Baker in the ’60s as he stumbled out of, and then back into, a fog of drug abuse and self-destruction. He had hoped to stage a comeback—all before plunging back into the abyss one more time.
“Born to Be Blue” begins as a movie-within-a-movie after the destitute Baker is picked up literally off the street in Italy by a film producer, who shoves the jazz maestro into a cheesy, black-and-white, redemption docudrama about his own rise and fall, with appearances from Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Budreau’s film is, thankfully, better than this. He wants to lay out the cliches in order to flout them, which he does to poignant effect by narrowing the scope of “Born to Be Blue” to a short period in Baker’s too-short life.
Baker meets Jane (Carmen Ejogo), the actress playing the part of his ex-wife Elaine. Shes puts some sparkle back in Baker’s life. After he gets beaten nearly to death and has his teeth knocked out by a disgruntled dealer, rendering him unable to play his horn, the movie gets shelved. Jane saves him from himself. For a moment, anyway.
He loses his apartment, and manager, Dick (Callum Keith Rennie), who has already lost his faith. So Baker moves into Jane’s Volkswagen on a craggy shore off the Pacific, and they try to build the illusion of a romantic life together as he mounts his return to form, all while trudging uphill against heroin addiction.
All broken jaw and bloodied teeth, Hawke brings a visceral physicality to the performance that evokes a more tender, tragic counterpart of Mickey Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler,” shaping Baker as a tragic figure and a broken little boy. Ejogo, as his rescuer, is lovely and sublime, as anchored in real human feeling as Elizabeth Banks as Brian Wilson’s wife in “Love and Mercy,” another shaggy and heartbreaking and unusually structured music biopic. There’s a beautiful scene, in “Born to Be Blue,” where Hawke sings “My Funny Valentine” to Ejogo, who cries. It’s easy to believe that they’re very much in love. But there’s something Chet Baker loved more.
Budreau isn’t striving to make a biopic with “Born to Be Blue.” He wants to capture the essence and soul of the jazz musician, who died drugged to the gills and alone in 1988 in the streets of Amsterdam. The film’s final scene is Baker’s moving, almost triumphant, doped-out comeback performance at New York’s Birdland, a phoenix barely limping from the ashes as Davis and Gillespie watch in quiet admiration. Hawke more than sells it, and with the right distributor “Born to Be Blue,” however slight, could be an indie awards player.