Born to Be Blue

Ordinarily I shy away from musician biopics, and from biopics in general. The human life just doesn't adapt well to a two-hour dramatic narrative. But I'd heard that Born to Be Blue, about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in the late 1960s, was so fictionalized that you couldn't even really call it a biopic. I'd also heard that Ethan Hawke, as Baker, turned in an incredible performance. As a fan of Baker's music since my dad introduced me to it in my early twenties, I took a chance.

They're right: Hawke is terrific as Baker, charting the musician's struggle to return to music after having his embouchure – his mouth's ability to play the trumpet – broken, presumably by his drug dealer, in 1966. (It was a low point in a life full of low points, mostly thanks to Baker's heroin addiction and to jazz's uncertain future after the '50s.) Affecting a higher voice but requiring little makeup to emulate Baker – Hawke's handsome but prematurely creased face is a canny facsimile of Baker's own once-boyish visage, wizened by drug use – he is by turns charming, fragile, determined, flaky, and heartbreaking. He perfectly captures Baker's essence, even if the real Baker might not have been so sweet-natured all the time.

Most of the drama in this dramatization centers around Carmen Ejogo, who plays Baker's fictional girlfriend "Jane" and even his fictional ex-wife "Elaine", seen in black and white flashbacks that may or not be from an abandoned biopic starring Baker himself. (I'm assuming this 1966 biopic attempt never actually happened.) Ejogo is fine, but her character seems there only to bring out aspects of Baker's personality while he quietly teaches himself how to play again.

You might find the lackadaisical Born to Be Blue a little dull. It's not exactly a thrill a minute. But see it for Hawke's touching, lived-in performance, and for writer/director Budreau's cool, moody atmosphere. Not all the actors' hairstyles are period-appropriate, but Budreau effortlessly takes you back to the era in recording studios, jazz clubs, and VW vans parked along the Southern California shore.

Watching this film, in short, is like listening to a good Chet Baker ballad.