Ethan Hawke talked about his “Chet Baker” movie for so long it seemed he might age out of ever getting to play the troubled jazz giant on the screen.
But “Boyhood” and the Oscar nomination that followed allowed Hawke and filmmaker Robert Budreau to get their vision on the screen. And “Born to be Blue” was worth the wait.
It’s a lyrical, self-aware and breezy drama that feels like jazz itself — dated but fresh, a tale of smokey clubs and burning memories, captured in black and white, with an art form just hitting its peak just as its audience faded away. And Hawke makes a perfectly content, laid-back Baker, a matinee idol junkie who owns his addictions, takes his lumps and refuses to truly change his style, musically or personally, even as circumstances force him to.
The self-mocking framing device of this story is Baker’s shot at screen stardom. He’s fresh out of prison and in front of the cameras, making a “Chet Baker Story.” Carmen Ejogo is his co-star, an African American actress portraying “Chet’s women.” She understands his attraction to black women, but she’s having trouble figuring out what they see in him. He sees that as an invitation to put the moves on her.
“Let’s go out, have some laughs.”
“You don’t strike me as funny.”
When she is witness to the beat-down that ends production on that bio-film, she inexplicably sticks around. The smart, sexy and earthy “Jane” has fallen under Baker’s spell. She just can’t tell us why.
But we do get a sense of his offhanded, thoughtful charm, characteristics of many a Hawke performance. Baker found fame early as a sort of “great white hope” of jazz. He tells her and us the story of his “discovery” by Charlie “Bird” Parker. We see, in flashbacks, the shrieking female fans, the on-stage quintessence of 1950s and ’60s jazz cool — suit, horn, sunglasses. Yeah, he was “The James Dean of jazz.”
Another flashback (all in black and white) sets up his nagging doubt — being dismissed by jazz icon Miles Davis (Kedar Brown, ferocious) upon their first meeting. Baker idolized Miles. Miles sneered at Baker.
And we see that first encounter with heroin , through a woman who isn’t his wife.
“Born to be Blue” tracks through the long struggle to regain his sound that followed Baker’s beating, when he lost his teeth and his embouchure, the mouth muscle and upper jaw bone development born of decades of playing the trumpet. Tt sanitizes him, somewhat, with much of his junky philanderer edge rubbed off.
Hawke nicely captures Baker’s half-whispered, sexy-slow singing style made most famous in a cover of “My Funny Valentine.” Other jazzmen (Dizzy Gillespie, ably played by Kevin Hanchard) try to get him to stop singing. He won’t.
Even when his disapproving dad, played by Stephen McHattie, who played Baker in writer-director Budreau’s 2009 short film, “The Deaths of Chet Baker,” asks Chet “Why’d you have to sing like a girl?”, Chet won’t change.
His producer/mentor (Callum Keith Rennie) tries to get Chet to stay clean and repeatedly gives up on him when he doesn’t.
But Chet, even while living in a VW Microbus, practicing his playing through rivers of blood, endures.
It’s a conventionally unconventional film, its surprise twists coming from Baker himself. The supporting cast is short on star power and the charisma that accompanies that. But Hawke and Ejogo, who played civil rights icon Coretta Scott King in “Selma,” have enough soul and charisma and chemistry to hold the screen and make us feel “Born to be Blue,” even if we, like Jane in the movie, never quite “get” Chet Baker.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence
Running time: 1:37