Starring: Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo
Directed by: Robert Budreau
Running time: 1 hr 37 mins
Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
OK music fans, here’s a name for you: Chet Baker. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No?
Too bad. How about Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie? Oh, those guys you know. Would you be surprised if I told you that Chet Baker was, for a short time in the 1950’s, their musical equal? Sadly, it was the demon called Heroin that took away both his talent and his fame.
We first meet Baker (a well-cast Ethan Hawke) sprawled out on the floor of an Italian prison cell. While ruminating on his life we travel back to the mid 1950’s and the iconic jazz club known as Birdland. There we get a taste of Baker’s talent. Shot in black and white and full of billowy smoke, the scene sets the stage for what might have been. A decade later, his career floundering, he takes a job playing himself in a feature film. However, a beating by muggers leaves him minus his front teeth. And for a horn player, no teeth means no music. Reduced to pumping gas, Baker finds himself on the verge of redemption. If only he can keep the demon away.
A bio-pic that flits around, “Born to Be Blue” takes its name from one of Baker’s best known songs. Though other characters are featured, the film mostly concentrates on Baker and his girlfriend, Elaine (Ejogo), who we originally meet when she is cast as Baker’s ex-wife in the ill-fated movie. We learn that the creator of West Coast Swing had a hard time handling his father, also a musician. Referred to as the “James Dean of Jazz,” he is a junkie that hates needles. “Hello Fear, Hello Death, F*** You,” is his mantra as a friend sticks the needle in his arm. One of the first recovering drug addicts to be prescribed methadone, Baker takes his life one day at a time.
There are two stars in this film. The first is Hawke, who finds a way to make an unsympathetic character sympathetic. Extra points for doing his own vocal work. Second is the music. The soundtrack is full of some of the best jazz standards of the time, each one telling a story that accompanies the one on-screen. With Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles Davis film on the horizon, it looks like jazz is making a comeback. Give it, and the film, a chance.