The traditional narrative arc of musician biopics is so
established that a film can seem confusing when it tells a different story.
This is why Born to Be Blue, the new
biopic of Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, can seem shapeless and oddly paced. Where
is the ‘rise, fall, and redemption’ drama that we know so well?
The impression that Born
to Be Blue is a slow, misfiring version of Walk the Line or Ray is
only heightened by the way it deals with some of the genre’s most well-worn
subjects – drug abuse, spousal conflict, and the pressures of genius – and
denies its audience easy resolutions.
But Robert Budreau’s film is valuable for the very way in
which it turns the clichés inside out and finds new truth within them. Rather
than focussing on the impossibly pretty younger Baker and his heady rise to
top-tier jazz success, Born to Be Blue opens
with him curled up on the floor of a jail cell, his beauty ruined by heroin
The film follows his attempts to rehabilitate himself and
his career – something made harder when drug dealers knock his teeth out and
ruin the ‘embouchure’ so crucial to a trumpet player. Ethan Hawke plays the
part with the requisite mix of puppyish innocence and seedy ruin.
Hawke’s performance gives the film heart, but its edge comes
from its deconstruction of celebrity self-mythology. Flashbacks to Baker’s more
successful days are actually scenes from a profile-raising film he stars in as
himself. When he starts dating the actress who plays his wife (Carmen Ejogo),
it’s clear that he’s content to embrace a facsimile of the past.
Born to Be Blue presents
itself as ‘semi-fictional’. In this way, it’s reminiscent of alt-biopic I’m Not There, which famously cast six
different actors (including Cate Blanchett) as Bob Dylan. Budreau’s film is more
It’s closer in tone and effect to moody non-biopic Inside Llewyn Davis. Like the Coen
brothers’ masterpiece – like both Llewyn and Baker – Born to Be Blue can be hard to love at times. But it’s a rich, unusual
film that doesn’t sell short the complexity of its subject. You can’t ask for
|What||Born to be Blue film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
25 Jul 16 – 25 Sep 16, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more details|