Susan Granger’s review of “Born To Be Blue” (IFC Films)
Back in 1954, jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) made a dazzling vocal debut on Manhattan’s Birdland stage with Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). That was after he’d worked with bebop pioneer Charlie Parker and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, establishing his soulful West Coast sound.
What followed, however, was a succession of barren years, blighted by Baker’s rampant heroin addiction. So, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Baker found himself on the West Coast, immersed in a movie about his life as “the James Dean of jazz,” falling in love with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), the actress playing his wife, who tries to help with his rehabilitation.
That’s the episode of Baker’s life that writer/director Robert Budreau has fictionalized. In reality, Baker declined an offer from Dino De Laurentis to play himself in a biopic that was subsequently never made.
Since Budreau offers little or no linear continuity, there’s also a contrived segment in 1966 in which two drug dealers brutally beat up Baker, knocking out his front teeth and destroying his lips, forcing him to re-learn to play his instrument with dentures.
After that humiliation, Baker is shown scraping the bottom of the musical barrel, playing trumpet wearing a sombrero as part of a mariachi band.
Watching a drug addict heat up that syringe time-after-time not only becomes tedious but also infuriating. In addition, since Budreau could not obtain the rights to use the original music, Ethan Hawke does his own singing, while trumpeter Kevin Turcotte re-creates Baker’s notes.
Undoubtedly, Hawke’s subtle rendition of Baker’s sad signature song, “My Funny Valentine,” is the film’s highlight.
Mercifully, Budreau concludes this sordid tale before Baker plunged to his death from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Born To Be Blue” is a flat 5. Better to listen to Chet Baker’s original recordings than bother with this imitation.