Jazz is a complicated, complex music genre that never really adheres to conventions. Often dynamic, rarely predictable, Jazz musicians lived their lives in the same tempo as their music. Sometimes fast and loose, other times slow and somber. Chet Baker’s life played out in much the same way, but he came to terms with the fact that he was born to be blue. His self-awareness over his self-fulling prophecy shows in his music as he uses his trumpet as an extension of his own emotional turmoil.
Born to be Blue is one of the most recent films about a jazz star to come out in the last month, with a couple more on the way. This film follows Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) at the lowest point in his life. It is not just about blues and jazz, but also the power of addiction. For most of the film, we see Chet Baker trade one addiction for another. The main two being his longtime and one-time film costar Jane (Carmen Ejogo) and his love affair with heroin. Along with playing Baker’s ex-wife Elaine in a film adaptation of Chet Baker’s life, Jane also serves as a composite of every relationship he’s had post-Elaine.
The chemistry between Ejogo and Hawke is harmonious. Their distinct rhythms complement each other and give the perfect illusion of synchronicity, even when their characters are opposingly discordant. Hawke’s character is shown to be in a vicious cycle, but not one that is completely self-destructive. Born to be Blue does a great job inspiring empathy for Chet Baker while also never allowing us to feel sympathy. Baker’s addiction to heroine is as much a part of his life as breathing, finally coming to terms with the symbiotic relationship with his drugs use and artistry. Whether he needs to drugs to perform or uses them as a crutch is never important. The only thing of any importance is the final product, and that turned out to be some of Baker’s best music.
Ejogo’s performance as Baker’s love interest is meant to be an amalgam of his past loves, including his ex-wife. She perfectly personifies every relationship Baker has been in, and will likely have going forward. In the film and in Baker’s life, Jane is his savior. Choosing her is one of the few redeemable qualities Baker displays. Jane helps rebuild Baker so he can continue doing what he loves, but Baker never returns the support. Ejogo brings her character to life with her strong emotional performance rooted in emotions we can all relate to. The film may be about the life of Chet Baker, but Ejogo makes her character the figure of power in each scene.
Born to be Blue begins with Chet Baker starring in a film about his life and career up to that point. This serves as an excellent plot device later in the film as we see glimpses from the past as scenes of that film that was being made. Thanks to writer/director Robert Budreau, we get a majority of our context about Baker’s past from these types of black and white scenes, giving the film a great visual appeal. The more we find out about Baker’s past, through conversations and even a visit to his childhood home, the easier his future becomes to predict. With the inclusion of other famous jazz icons, like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, we even glimpse the hierarchy behind the music, and the root of some of the bad influences. Budreau isn’t looking to sugarcoat Baker’s past, and he also isn’t looking to offer any judgments on the paths he took. Budreau’s only goal was understanding the person behind the music, and his unconventional inspiration.
Born to be Blue uses the life of Chet Baker to examine jazz music, drugs and the interconnected relationship between them. We see love as a gateway drug for Baker that proves to be enough for him, but only for a short time. Like many musicians, Baker’s addiction is tied to him ambition, needing a stronger fix the closer he gets to achieve his goals. Jane is his support system and the love he gets from here is intoxicating enough to sustain him temporarily. Though their love seems genuine and pure, it is also highly possession and covertly one-sided. There will be no doubt about Chet Baker’s true love at the end of Born to be Blue, but seeing the cycle replay itself you will understand that the end was inevitable.
Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)