Classic Review: Born to be Blue (2016)

Since I’ve started this site, I’ve written a lot of reviews. In case you missed some of my earlier ones, I would like to share an older review of “Born to be Blue” which originally appeared here. If you would like to read an interview with the director of the film, Robert Budreau, from GetReelMovies, click here.

Legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) must relearn his craft in the late ’60s after his front teeth are knocked out during a mugging. As he strives to get his career back on track and overcome his heroin addiction, he receives support from his new girlfriend named Jane (Carmen Ejogo), an actress who was cast to play his lover in a movie about his life.

I will say that I’m not the most familiar with the work of Ethan Hawke as I haven’t seen much of his films. I am also not a real jazz fan or know anything about legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. What drew me to this film was the fact that the majority of it was shot in Sudbury and North Bay , Ontario, which is not too far away from me.

Here Hawke plays legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Now in the late 1960’s, after having his front teeth knocked out in a mugging, he must relearn how to use the trumpet in order to get his career back. As he strives to get his career back on track, he must overcome a heroin addiction. To do so, he receives help from his new girlfriend named Jane (Ejogo), an actress cast to play his lover in a movie about Baker’s life.

Instead of a straightforward biopic, we first see Baker at his worst and follow him on his journey back to the top. The film does offer us glances via flashbacks as to how he used to be. They did so in a cool, interesting way by having these in black and white which helped to highlight the order of events in Baker’s life. These scenes were interwoven with scenes comprised of the movie of Baker’s life within the movie. This sometimes made it hard to tell which scenes were from his memory and which were from the movie which was probably the intention here but I found it a little confusing.

It’s hard not to notice Hawke here who is definitely like you haven’t seen him before (at least for me). He just seemed very subdued here, almost vulnerable as Baker. He was great here playing Baker over multiple time periods and you can definitely notice the subtle differences in his attitude and behavior over that time, from the confidence bordering on arrogance in his heyday to the shell of a man battling a crippling injury and a devastating drug addiction. Hawke’s performance made this progression at least interesting to watch. Baker himself wasn’t exactly the most likeable of characters but Hawke made him so compelling to watch through his many struggles physically and with his inner demons that you were invested in his comeback. Sure he didn’t actually play the trumpet and only sang but you couldn’t really tell (I didn’t know until after the film).

What was also great to watch was the relationship between Baker and his girlfriend Jane. Hawke and Ejogo had great chemistry here which was important since the film depended greatly on this relationship. Jane, a fictional character used as an amalgamation of the women in Baker’s life, had an interesting journey here from being a co-worker, to his love interest, to the mother of his child, while also being the muse that keeps him going and inspires him to kick his drug habit in order to get better and play better. What I liked about this was that instead of focusing too much on their personal relationship, it only really focused on her involvement in Baker’s career.

What I also liked about the film was its style. I’ve already talked about the use of black and white imagery but its entirety just felt like one long dream. What was even more impressive to me was how they created the backdrop of 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles and New York in the city of Sudbury. For those who know about Sudbury, that was certainly not easy.

Overall, this is an interesting Canadian film with a unique style and led by great performances by Hawke and Ejogo.

Score: 9/10

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