The long-standing problem plaguing biopics can be best encapsulated by a single question: How do you tell someone’s life story, which likely spans decades, within 120 minutes? To omit vital events in one’s life will elicit enraged responses from viewers. On the flipside, to have a film unfurl like a banal scrapbook, cataloguing personal highlights without exploring them, is equally infuriating.
Recent history shows that the best approach to this genre is narrowing the scope. Ava DuVernay‘s “Selma” was especially effective because it had no interest in presenting audiences with the life and times of Martin Luther King. Instead, DuVernay offered up — in meticulous detail — an intimate account of the march from Selma to Montgomery, circa 1965. In honing in on one of many milestones of the Civil Rights Movement, it elucidated King’s virtues as a person and leader, without synthesizing his entire life story into a hackneyed, two-hour affair.
Robert Budreau‘s “Born to Be Blue,” which revolves around legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, falls somewhere in the middle of the genre’s eternal problem. The movie catches up with Baker after he had fallen into a downward spiral of heroin and despondency. Come 1967, after he had essentially jettisoned every person in his life that cared about him, Baker wanted to make a comeback. Budreau aims to chart his return in all of its idiosyncratic beauty.
Cast in the movie of his life, Chet (Ethan Hawke) is hired to be an actor. His inability to act, however, is a problem that is short-lived. The movie is shelved after Baker’s beaten to a pulp by one his many pusher men. Toothless and broken, Baker has no one but Elaine (Carmen Ejogo) by his side. It takes a matter of minutes to see that Elaine, an aspiring actress, is the driving force behind Chet’s gradual recovery.
She makes an ultimatum: it’s either the junk, or her. “Born to Be Blue” does an exquisite job depicting Chet’s addiction. Heroin dictates his life. So much so that he believes he’s better at everything on the drug, from trumpet to sex. This dependency on a drug creates an uphill battle for Baker, who is also tasked with learning how to play his beloved instrument after the accident nearly paralyzed him.
Where the movie falls into some of the typical trappings of biopics is in the flashbacks. Budreau’s film is consistently interspersed with black and white vignettes from his heyday: the early records on the west coast, jazz club Birdland in New York, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie watching him perform from afar. These snapshots lack the intimacy and specificity that the rest of the movie offers. A central scene with Davis warning Chet away from jazz, for example, has a cartoonish, almost obligatory feel to it.
But on the whole, “Born to Be Blue” does right by its central subject. Hawke especially flourishes as the afflicted artist, desperate to put the pieces of his life back together. Assuming the role of someone well known like Chet, is a challenge for any performer. As an audience, we already have the very real image of Baker, dazed and soft-spoken, eager to perform. And yet, Hawke manages to breath new life into the incomparable trumpeter. The signature features of a Hawke performance are not found here. He’s doesn’t play the part as the comforting father or hip adult.
Baker is an addict, and the film makes no effort to downplay the drug’s incalculable effect on his life. There are a handful of scenes of Baker using, swallowed whole by ecstasy. It’s painful to watch him ensnared in this cycle, where there seems to be only points of entry, and no exits. A sequence in which Baker explains to Elaine how much he enjoys heroin is particularly poignant. “It makes me happy,” he explains. It’s infrequent that we see an addict display such candor. He doesn’t chalk up dependency on his upbringing, depression, or failed romances (of which, we are told, there are many). To quote an article by Jay Caspian Kang about his gambling addiction, “the pain is always the high and the high is always the pain.” And he can’t quite get enough of either.
It’s a sign of success, I believe, when a biopic prompts you to reevaluate the career of its subject. At every turn, “Born to Be Blue” does that. And so here we are, thinking about Chet’s inimitable output. It’s of the humble opinion of this writer that Baker is among the most gifted musicians of the 20th century. Full stop. Naturally, it’s damn near impossible for a filmed version of his life to be even half as good as Chet Baker Sings, or Baker’s Holiday, or She Was Too Good To Me. “Born to Be Blue” is a good movie about a great artist.
What’s so impressive about Budreau’s sophomore feature is that it forces the viewer to re-enter the never-ending debate about the ends justifying the means. Baker fell to his death from his second-story room at Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam. To no surprise, the autopsy revealed a mélange of opiates in his body, including heroin. It’s a tragedy that a drug is typically the focal point of Baker’s illustrious career as a musician. The questions, no matter how vexing and tragic, remain: do the singular sounds that emanate from his addiction justify that addiction? Do we need him to feel great pain in order to create great music? And, most importantly, could the two have existed without one another? These are unanswerable inquiries, of course.
Perhaps it’s time to put on “That Old Feeling” and listen, grateful for its existence. After all, what else is there to do? [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.