Sometimes the licence a filmmaker can take with a biopic is dictated and informed by that of their subject. So when dealing with a volatile, creative talent such as Chet Baker, it seems only fitting for the cinematic imagining of his life to be emblematic of that sense of spontaneity that enriched his records. In the case of Robert Budreau’s Born to be Blue – and in a very similar vein to the recent Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, who was a contemporary of Baker’s – we’re witnessing something that is gloriously resourceful, and ingenious in its approach.
In a rather meta turn of events, we watch on as jazz musician Baker, played with a stunning conviction by the ever-impressive Ethan Hawke, is offered the chance to be the subject of a biopic, where he is to play himself on screen. However the long-suffering heroin addict struggles to overcome his affliction for narcotics, and after being a victim to a savage attack outside a nightclub, the project is discarded. While he didn’t leave with any dignity, he did leave with a new girlfriend, as Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who had been cast as his ex-wife Elaine, starts dating the musician in real life, though their relationship soon shadows that of the one they were depicting together on screen. So in a bid to rejuvenate both his career and life, Baker plans a comeback, if he can stay off the drugs.
Budreau presents this narrative in a truly creative fashion, as rather than have mere flashbacks into Baker’s tumultuous past and his former relationship, we instead peer into that time via the scenes he shoots for the eventually cancelled biopic. What transpires is a fascinating, if a little contrived parallel between Jane and Elaine; for while Ejogo is only playing the former, as she depicts Elaine in the biopic, she is ultimately playing both roles, allowing for us to see how both relationships marry up in a rather unfortunate and seemingly inevitable way.
Hawke is remarkable, as ever, in the leading role, adding a vital sense of volatility to proceedings, while maintaining such an authentic portrayal of an addict, veering away from any sense of cliché, so subtle in his execution. He’s matched at every turn by Ejogo, as the magnetic performer ensures that, while this may be a flawed film overall, the scenes featuring the two talented performers are nothing if not compelling.