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Born To Be Blue Review

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Playing himself in a movie about his early success and nascent drug habit, jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) tries to make a musical comeback in the late 1960s.

★★★★

Ethan Hawke has been on quite the hot streak lately, and in Born To Be Blue he gives another first-class performance as legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, a role he’d longed to play since he was a teenager. Eschewing the standard womb-to-tomb biopic model, writer-director Robert Budreau focusses on the troubled musician’s would-be comeback in the late ’60s, as he’s hired to play himself in a movie about his earlier years, this device offering a framework in which to examine the performer’s fall from grace. It’s an unflashy film more concerned with the smoke and shadows than the bright lights of success, offering an unvarnished portrait of Baker’s at times wince-making struggle with heroin addiction — a battle that would eventually contribute to his death, decimating his career and many of his closest relationships along the way.

Hawke offers a magnetic portrayal of an exasperating but deeply charismatic figure.

As Hawke told Empire, “We all become a lot more interesting when we’re failing,” and here Baker is a royal mess. Losing his teeth after being beaten up by thugs and thus unable to play his beloved trumpet until he gets to grips with new dentures and a reformed embouchure, we witness his attempts to claw his way back and his romance of actress Jane Azuka (an invented character representing an amalgamation of the women in Baker’s life, played by Carmen Ejogo), hindered by a roving eye and and a crippling inability to stick to the methadone.

Of course, artists struggling with demons is a tale told many, many times before and in this sense there’s little new to see here, but Budreau’s take is refreshingly non-judgemental, Baker’s story used to explore notions of identity, self-worth and the search for meaning even as we recoil as he plunges to new, almost delicious, lows. We are offered no answers, no pat conclusions, and Budreau’s almost impressionistic, fragmentary style makes for a fresh approach.

Even so, this would be a merely solid, enjoyable addition to the genre were it not for Hawke’s heartfelt, nuanced performance. Touched by resonant tragedies amongst his own friends (River Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and learning to play the trumpet for the role, Hawke is compelling, offering a magnetic portrayal of an exasperating but deeply charismatic, engaging figure.

A tough, uncompromising take on a jazz legend, lifted by a never-been-better Ethan Hawke — an early contender for Best Actor consideration come awards season.

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