Born to be Blue is a passion project that was years in the making for actor Ethan Hawke and director-writer Robert Budreau. Hawke plays the role of jazz trumpeter and crooner Chet Baker, who seems to be on the cusp of a comeback when the film opens in the mid-1960s. After his release from an Italian prison, there’s a black and white sequence that pulls the viewer back 1950s. The big moment is an evening in New York at the Birdland jazz club, where legend Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) is in attendance.
Co-star Callum Keith Rennie emerged for a Q&A after the screening at the Whistler Film Festival earlier this month. He called attention to the tensions that he felt Budreau and Hawke wanted to capture. “It was the new white guy on a scene that was predominately understood to be Black. It was ‘the new kid in town.’ I think there was a bit of a distance between the groups coming together,” Rennie explained to the crowd at the Village 8 Cinema.
Baker engages in a fling even though his wife Elaine (Carmen Ejogo) accompanied him to the concert. It’s quite a surprise when Baker suddenly starts to whine about the realism of scene to Elaine, who is actually his co-star Jane. A wider shot reveals a film crew milling about on a bio-pic that is not going well. It’s a curious starting point, because Born to Be Blue is not a bio-pic. Rather, the film is shaped by aspects of Baker’s life and music.
The floundering enterprise (the film-within-this-film, not Budreau’s) is dumped when Baker is brutally attacked after a date with Jane. The initial stages of the treatment phase are likely to make viewers squirm in their seats. Baker’s career as a musician appears to be over. He can’t play the trumpet through the pain and a loose set of dentures. Nonetheless, his tenacity and growing relationship with Jane drive him to seek ways to regain his musical abilities and reputation.
Baker is a recovering drug addict and his impulsive streak constantly threatens to break through. “It makes me happy. I love to get high,” he says early on. It’s ironic that Jane agrees almost too readily to support him, despite her knowledge of his failed relationships and old habits. There’s a constant teasing as to whether or not she will turn out like the other women in Baker’s life.
Rennie was cast as Dick Bock, a former manager, who takes quite a bit of convincing to lend his support. Bock is a rather straightforward character in his demeanor and Hollywood suits compared to the complexity and meandering of Baker. The musician might be disciplined in practicing his trumpet, but Bock’s presence and wary looks serve as constant reminders of the troubled history. It’s a juxtaposition that was intentional. “How do you slow-pitch stuff to Ethan so he could get the most out of Chet? It wasn’t all in the material,” Rennie said. “We could riff on almost every scene, adjust every scene, and sort of take off so he can get in the quotes that he wants.”
Thus the mood on set was casual and improvisational, a tone that is apparent even as events transpire a bit predictably on Baker’s route back the top. Yet Hawke’s portrayal adds an energy that feels unique and artistic in what is arguably one of the best performances in his career. It’s heartfelt, funny, and poetic. He uses his own voice for the songs, which have a great rawness in their delivery. The visual interplay between his intense gaze and the awestruck look on Ejogo’s face during those moments paint a very beautiful love story as well. It continues to resonate in the reveal at the end, when clues from their earlier conversations connect during Baker’s last song.
There’s something for everyone to enjoy in Born to Be Blue, whether you’re a Chet Baker fan, a jazz enthusiast, or curious about Ethan Hawke’s latest project. The drama, a joint production by Canada and the U.K., was picked up by IFC Films, where a release date has not been set.
This article was originally posted on Blogcritics.org with the same title.