REVIEW: Born To Be Blue

29 04 2016

Born to Be BlueAny tweak on the “great man” biopic is welcome, though the pendulum need not swing as far in the other direction as Robert Budreau’s “Born To Be Blue,” a portrait of Chet Baker so mundane that one could mistake him for being an entirely fictional invention. His story of career struggles, addiction battles and relationship strife feel rather commonplace and pedestrian. I entered the film knowing nothing about Chet Baker’s renowned skills and left with scarcely more knowledge about his fame or his work.

Ethan Hawke, who plays Chet Baker, inhabits the body of the talented musician and heroin junkie with aplomb. He’s ever so slightly more on edge than his usual laid-back persona, and he makes his motions a little lankier and oversized. The performance consists of a soulful component, too, not just a grab bag of mannerisms. But with precious little to service, Hawke’s work goes largely to waste.

Writer/director Budreau never settles on what “Born To Be Blue” should be. Films can resist categorization, yet without purposeful maneuvering, ambiguity reads as indecision. The most powerful component of the film might be Baker’s heroin habit; Budreau, however, resists the tropes of drugs being either a fatal flaw or the talent enabler.

Thus, he leaves somewhat of a redemption storyline as Baker relearns the trumpet after losing his front teeth after getting beat up by – shocker! – his dealers. There’s also a good deal of attention paid to Baker’s relationship with Carmen Ejogo’s Jane Azuka, his life partner whose career as an actress frequently takes a backseat to his. He also needs her to be his everything, while she gets precious little in return. Sure, it might be unfair to impose modern social norms on a story set fifty years ago … but Jane literally objectifies herself during sex to make him feel more comfortable. “Play me like a trumpet,” she says. If only “Born To Be Blue” gave more information about its subject, that line would ring as something more than a demeaning, diminutive remark. B-3stars

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