Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker biopic had the opportunity to riff off any number of Chet Baker tunes and titles. The Whitlams’ ‘Thank you (for loving me at my worst)’ might have suited even better.
Thankfully steering away from the all-encompassing, grand biopics where a Director attempts to depict any and all of their subject’s tribulations, Born to Be Blue picks a very specific, less than glamorous time in the iconic jazz musician’s life, serving as much more solid footing for this taut biopic.
Jumping in at (one of) the worst moments in Baker’s (Ethan Hawke) career, long past his fast rise to fame, the second major film this year to chronicle a jazz legend alongside Don Cheadle’s take on Miles Davis (who also makes more than one appearance here), takes the figure through the 60s, a new love affair and his attempts to reorientate himself in light of personally devastating events.
Resting in no small degree on Hawke’s performance, his soft yet distinctly powerful banter, rarely lifting his voice and despondent for large measures of the film, is captivating even more so for the few moments when Chet bursts out in one of Born to Be Blue’s excellent numbers. An opening, stylistic titles sequence set to one Baker’s tunes, sparsely featured here but engaging throughout, is matched only by the film’s tumultuous finale.
The supporting cast are barely around long enough to register, save Carmen Ejogo (Selma) as Baker’s film-within-a-film co-star and soon flame. The musical sequences duly compelling, if too few and far between, Born to Be Blue showcases some of the more melodic jazz, rather than the upbeat rhythms that typify Hollywood features, and it’s a nice change.
Behind the scenes it’s cinematographer Steve Cosens who really excels – brimming the picture with memorable, stylistically distinct moments both ideal for promotion and the lingering, emotional weight the choice retelling often delivers. A romantic scene on a beach with the couple stands out all the more for the filmmakers’ patient, long-hold take, as well as a bathtub sequence featuring Baker and his trumpet that will no doubt be splashed over any marketing material.
Choosing only to allude to other parts of Bakers life, such as his long sojourn in Europe which could form the basis of other like pictures or further investigation by no doubt curious viewers, Born to Be Blue is that much more enjoyable for giving us only a slice, compelling enough in and of itself, and letting us submerge ourselves in it and Baker’s very, very catchy hits.
Born to Be Blue is screening as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on Monday 1 August and Saturday 6 August, for tickets head to the Festival website