Born to Be Blue full movie review - even Miles would applaud for this movie!
I wouldn't go as far as to say that Ethan Hawke was "born" to play Chet Baker (no pun intended to the title), but this is the kind of performance that tends to be talked about for years to come.
There's no front put up between him and the audience, and despite the vocal change to be a little more hoarse or whispery or however it was that Baker was naturally from his Oklahoma-cum-cigarette-strewn roots, it feels as if Hawke has slipped into Baker's shoes from the outset and that he just IS him. And though it's mostly set in the time period where Baker bottomed out the hardest - getting his teeth knocked out by a dealer while shooting a movie featuring himself as his own character in the 'Chet Baker Story - with those scenes from the movie in the movie (whether they were filmed or just imagined by Baker from the script written for him) Hawke gets to play multiple time periods and not in a typical bio-pic format.
As an actor he gets to have such a complex, vulnerable person to slip into, and at first I wasn't sure how he would do. I think Hawke's a terrific actor, though a lot of the time it seems as if it's just Hawke as... Ethan Hawke on screen, with some exceptions (like Gattaca), and even in the 'Before' films it seems just like it's this cool guy getting in front of the camera. It seems like a lot to keep harping on the lead performance like it means everything but in this case it kind of does - there's no Giamatti or Elizabeth Banks like in last year's Love & Mercy, and also the filmmaker behind this, Robert Budreau, is not making filming it quite like the standard bio-pic: long takes where the actor (also co-star Carmen Ejogo for most of it) has to keep our attention while playing a famous musician who was not someone with a presence off-stage that was immediately compelling.
There's a lot to dig in to here thematically, whether it's drugs or race (Baker being the 'white boy' among the black giants like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, the former doesn't take too kindly to Baker in the 50's prime by the way), but while watching the movie you don't need to think about that. It's simply about this man who has his own way of going about things, is gentle in his way, and yet there's an intensity, bordering on a rage, that makes him compelling. Is it about addiction as much as the Eastwood Charlie Parker movie (Bird)? Yes and no - yes in that it's always there, as it is for all addicts, and when a scene like after he plays a show at the local bar (where he's trying to rebuild his trumpet playing skills) and a 'fan' slips him some dope (to which he responds "I thought you were a nice girl"), it seems hard not to sort of feel sorry for Baker that he's in a world where it's almost expected, in a way, for the Jazz heroes to be stone-cold junkies.
But no in that it's primarily a love story, which is where the chemistry between Hawke and Ejogo is especially crucial and, in this case, kind of strange and awesome in the approach. Many times you simply see a famous musician or actor or whoever in a movie meet a girl and fall in love and they have the ups and downs (Ray and Walk the Line are little else if not that), but here the twist is that Baker meets his love interest as she is playing his *former* lover in the movie-that-didn't-finish in the 1950's. It's a meta touch, but it's not to the point where the director takes us out of the film to any annoying degree; it's cleverly done in the opening 10/15 minutes where we think, the audience trained on clichés of biopics, that we're seeing a black-and-white flashback of this jazz-man's story of playing in Birdland and doing such things as the "first time" on heroin with some local girl.
The trick is that Baker is always Baker, whether it's in the 'real life' of the movie or the movie within the movie, it's all a movie, after all! It helps that the music is wonderful, and that's not something that is incidental; I have no idea if Hawke is playing the trumpet (he likely isn't, a handful of actors play their own stuff, let alone well, in these movies), but he does have to sing, and it's remarkable work on songs that require a thin line to walk on. Baker wasn't that phenomenal a singer except in the aspect of ripping-off-skin-to-see-the-insides honesty. It hurts to see Baker sing, and to see Hawke sing as him, and all the more that they're tender love songs. It doesn't necessarily come right away either, as the first passion for this man was the trumpet. Whether he comes to it by himself is something the movie leaves out (though I could surmise it was organic), but the point is that by the time the last third comes we've seen this man live a real life, which is all that Miles Davis asked for anyway.
A sincere, heart-breaking and simultaneously uplifting movie that is just a drama about a man working his art (among the giants always in his mind or in front of him), and a true-life story second. That it involves one of the coolest of his form is a bonus, and with an actor delivering a career-highlight work as well.