Ethan Hawke Breathes New Life into Jazz Icon Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue


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Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to be Blue, at the Capitol Theatre
  • Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to be Blue, at the Capitol Theatre
If you missed Miles Ahead, the frenetic Miles Davis biopic starring and directed by Don Cheadle, at the Cleveland International Film Festival, you’ve got another opportunity to see a weird jazz-musician biopic: Born to be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke as toothless jazz icon Chet Baker, opens Friday for an exclusive engagement at the Capitol Theatre.

The film is not a staid, just-the-facts biopic along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s dreary J. Egdar, or even (to keep it in the genus) Ray. Instead, this one intentionally tries to simulate the experience of improvisational jazz, and uses factual events from Baker’s life as the basis for the film's narrative, which captures Baker’s drug-addled, post-teeth experience in the 1960s (and dreamy black-and-white flashbacks to the 1950s). In fact, it self-identifies as an “anti-biopic.”

Director Robert Budreau (That Beautiful Somewhere) is a fan of Charlie Kaufman, whose experimental narrative structures and fact-fiction elision yielded beautiful results in both Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York.

In Born to be Blue, however, Ethan Hawke’s performance as Baker outpaces the narrative ambition of the film. By turns tender, tragic and savagely arrogant, Hawke’s interpretation — in spite of a lack of physical resemblance — is sometimes breathtakingly good. Likewise his trumpeting. As a musician who craves heroin as much as he craves music, Baker zeroes in on the root cause of his own debilitating addiction: “It makes me happy.”

Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in Selma) is also effective, without a whole lot to work with, as Jane, your garden variety “artist’s suffering lover.”

The film centers on some offbeat, lesser-known moments in the musician’s life — which may or may not be of much interest to anyone but hardcore jazz historians — and focuses on the musician’s struggle with drugs and performance after a dealer knocks his front teeth out. The internal battles between love and addiction have been played out on screen before.  But this one’s worth seeing for Hawke, who's hitting a mid-career stride with 2013's Before Midnight and 2014's Boyhood, and for the effervescence of the jazz licks coursing through the film. 

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