Originally premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, Born to Be Blue finds Ethan Hawke taking the role of jazz legend Chet Baker in what makes for one of the most unusual biopics that I have seen in quite some time. At the helm of sophomore director Robert Budreau, Born to Be Blue takes an incredibly different approach to capturing one of jazz’s most interesting faces. Opening up with a shot of Baker lying down on the cold, hard floor of a prison cell, we quickly see the immediate transition in his life as he is called to star in a movie about his tormented past. Within the early scenes of the film that Baker is working on, we begin to get a sense of what his life was like up to that point in time, as Budreau capitalizes on the production in order to contextualize the trouble that Baker faces throughout the course of the film.
On the set of his movie, Baker meets a woman named Jane (Carmen Ejogo) that he becomes immediately enamored with from the second we see her onscreen. As their relationship progresses throughout the course of the film, we get an even deeper sense of Baker’s troubled past when he takes Jane to meet his parents. Just from the first few moments that Chet and his parents are onscreen together, it is apparent that the two have had a complicated past together. Budreau frames each of his compositions to capture the uncomfortableness that separates the Baker from his family. Capturing each tentative gesture that Baker makes when in the presence of his family, Budreau shows how every decision that Chet makes around his family is deeply thought out. It is not easy to capture a character in a state of thinking over what they’re about to say without using voiceover, but Budreau manages to capture the thinking process that goes into every one of Chet’s slow replies when talking to his family, as he photographs everything from subtle lip movements to the delayed timing of his responses.
Born to Be Blue would surely make an interesting double bill with Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead at SXSW or even when both are released theatrically next month. Both biopics are some of the most unusual approaches to capturing renowned artists that I have seen in quite some time. Cheadle’s film is structured in a much more vibrant way, as it is always moving from one place to the next, whereas Budreau’s is much more contained and slowly moving. The structure of Born to Be Blue is the most problematic aspect of the film as it does not have any consistency to it. The film jumps around at too much of fragmented rate that it never brings Baker’s story into one cohesive narrative. Since it is not a story of vignettes, the structure does not particularly work, which is why Born to Be Blue feels so unfulfilling by the end of the film.