“Born to Be Blue”: A dreamy biopic, starring Ethan Hawke, about Chet Baker’s obsession with jazz and heroin. 3.5 stars out of 4.
One of the biggest challenges of writing a biography is finding — or in some respects, inventing — a storyline, since life itself includes lots of interesting stuff but usually no plot. Multiply that problem by 10 for the biopic film genre, since the writer and director need to tell the story in 90-120 minutes.
If you stay reverently true to the facts, you risk boring viewers, as the new Hank Williams biopic, “I Saw the Light,” does. But if you embellish too much, you’re doing fiction, not biography. Though it’s not a stunning picture — and its weave of black-and-white, film-within-a-film sequences is more arty than useful — “Born to Be Blue,” the new biopic about West Coast jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, significantly bends the truth but also gets the story right.
Baker was a quietly amazing improvisor — guitarist Herb Ellis once said Baker could always “find the sweet notes” — but also a narcissistic, sociopathic hedonist who cared about nothing but himself, his music and getting high on heroin. “Born to Be Blue” and Ethan Hawke capture that seductively soft-spoken character to a T. They also, somehow, make you care, hanging the story on an embellished 1966 pivotal period when Baker got his teeth knocked out (by a drug dealer?) and tried to clean up his act and participate in a loving relationship.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Born to Be Blue,’ with Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie. Written and directed by Robert Budreau. 98 minutes. Rated R for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence. Sundance Cinemas (21+).
Set against the sensual backdrop of California sea and sand and featuring the also sensual, camera-devouring face of Carmen Ejogo (“Selma”), the film draws you deeply into Baker’s fantasy world, to the point that the entreaty of his famous recording, “Let’s Get Lost,” almost seems like a good idea.
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