Rather than attempt to fit an artist’s entire life into 150-minutes of film, writer/director Robert Burdeau gives us 90-minutes of film chronicling about three or four months of jazz musician Chet Baker’s life. This is one of the two most brilliant aspects of Born to Be Blue, which then becomes as much about an addict in recovery and a love story as it is a wounded artist attempting to make a comeback. Burdeau, primarily, seems less interested in the minutiae of covering every factual detail as truthfully as possible, and more so in the emotional, universal truth that can be pulled from this slice of Baker’s life. We begin at the end, or so it seems, as Baker gets beaten up by a few heroin dealers and loses a few teeth after, presumably, not paying up. He seems to be past his prime, and that’s before his toothlessness threatens to prevent him from ever playing the trumpet again. As he lies in the hospital bed, only his just-met girlfriend, actress Jane Azuka (a commanding Carmen Ejogo) is by his side.
Jane is a fictional character, but just like Born to Be Blue, there’s an emotional truth in her character. Baker’s recovery with Jane, often accompanied by romantic Malickian landscapes, serves, for much of the film, as a parallel to Baker’s own recovery of his skills with a trumpet. He begins no better than a novice, staving off relapse and complete artistic failure in equal measure. As he struggles, Jane struggles to find an acting job. It ultimately comes to most echo Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler – less a biopic and more a study of an artist’s obsessions and struggles with his art. As such, the film’s emotional and thematic resonance is rolled into its final minutes, which stand as simultaneously beautiful, horrifying, emotionally moving, and lingering – its notions of artistic perfection as elusive and demanding a sacrifice challenge Baker’s physical and artistic comeback of the first two acts and present artistic zen in an adverse relationship with personal deterioration.
I haven’t mentioned Ethan Hawke, who is the second of the two most brilliant aspects of the film. He lifts his voice up a notch for the role and dials the charisma up to eleven. At first he’s missing one tooth, then a whole mouthful. He hunches over. Hawke finds the rare balance between artistic arrogance and swagger, and juvenile insecurity and fear – fear of not belonging with the cool jazz kids (Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie) during a time of racial change in the U.S. As artful and deliberate as Born to Be Blue‘s structure and script and direction are, Hawke’s performance is what makes them sing. As Baker he notes that he can “get in between the notes,” and that’s emblematic of Hawke’s performance, and subsequently the film, as a whole.