In Born to Be Blue, the Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau valiantly attempts to reconcile the seemingly disparate qualities of the ineffaceable American Jazz musician- Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke). The result is a beautiful, idyllic and sobering affair that meditates on the complicated nature of the artistic life. In the first twenty minutes of the film, there is a black and white flashback that is somewhat romantic and dreamlike in nature. Within the sequence, the iconic Jazz artist Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) honestly critiques Baker’s performance and show. He sternly tells the young trumpeter that he should return to Jazz when he has “Lived a little.”
The criticism is a literal mantra for the film’s visual canvas, as the audience are treated to many scenic scenes that have Baker practising his trumpet in the midst of his recovery from a brutal attack. In fact, some of the film’s most striking moments are the ones that see Baker struggle in the aftermath of the physical assault. The most astounding one comes before the Davis’ flashback. Baker is sitting in a bathtub and attempting to play his instrument. The result is intense pain and bleeding from his mouth as the scene goes on. The scene is a powerful reminder of the savage nature of life and its unpredictable turns, which can ultimately fulfil the artist with a newfound optimistic striving that did not exist before.
Ethan Hawke is simply out outstanding as the titular musician. He effortlessly portrays the inherent contradictories of Baker. For example, sometimes Baker’s looked and sounded like an idealistic young boy, which contrasted sharply with his smooth flirtatious side. One scene where Hawke conveys these contrary attitudes is at the beginning of the picture. There is an extended sequence where Baker is getting to know a woman called Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who is his co-star in a film that he is making that is about his life. They both go bowling, and Jane asks him some very pointed questions about his life. Hawke’s soft-spoken vocal tones nicely contrast well with his childlike physicality, which combined with the discussed truthful subject matters make for an engaging scene.
However, Hawke’s finest moments in the picture are in the third act when he is starting to play professionally again. There is a sense of willful determinism and an obsessive sense of control in regards to his comeback that is fascinating to watch. The standout scene in the act is when Baker is performing ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a live studio album in front of an audience that is comprised of producers. At this moment Hawke shows a natural aptitude of the trumpet, which is evident by Budreau confidently framing one of his solos in a single take.
Moreover, Hawke imbues a sense of precision and emotional weight to the singing sections of the song, which fundamentally speak to the emotional experiences of life and how they can shape the artist into a confident and mature person, who can firmly channel their experiences into their work. The scene also illustrates the appeal of Chet Baker. Although he was not a technically polished singer, his voice had a distinctive rawness that always felt immediate and soul-baring.