director Robert Budreau
Michael Sragow of Film Comment describes the Chet Baker film Born to Be Blue as “semi-factual, semi-fictional”. Some have called it as something a bit “meta” on the genre of the “biopic”, which for my money could be a good thing. But I’ll tell you this much, unless you know Baker’s true story, I don’t know you would make out exactly the semi-factual from semi-fictional.
We’ve got Ethan Hawke playing Baker just as he gets his teeth bashed out by a disgruntled drug dealer. So ensues the period of rebuilding his playing style with dentures, reclaiming his career, trying to establish love. His love is fixated into a composite played by Carmen Ejogo. Lovely and kind and intelligent as she is, she’s got nothing on the heroin that would continue to fuel Baker and his music til his premature death in 1989.
Born to Be Blue isn’t an utterly misguided effort. Hawke and Ejogo are good, but at the same time, I’m not entirely sure what new light this film sheds. And maybe that is on me. Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost is as free-form and beautiful an elegy I could imagine and it had the real deal in it, almost literally on his last legs, but still, something more profound and compelling.
I guess that raises the question of the purpose of a biopic in general. Usually compelled by the performance in particular of one actor playing the role of the legendary figure, they tend to truncated re-telling of said figure’s life. Focus depends on the figure and the creators, but it’s often a pretty middle of the road narrative genre, often swinging for the fences for acting awards.
I’m a bit mixed on how I feel about Born to Be Blue. But if anybody asked me, I’d probably direct them to Let’s Get Lost a dozen times before venturing further.