It’s a mini-Jazz Age in movies these days.
Among the greats celebrated in new biopics are Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead” (April 15), Nina Simone in “Nina” (on VOD April 22), and Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue,” opening Friday. Their stories call out for the standard stereotype of the genius who must endure hardship and inner turmoil to create art. The challenge comes when a filmmaker tries to fit a life that is as variegated as a jazz solo into that template.
When Baker died in 1988 at a well-worn 58, he left behind a messy mythic legacy, enough for many movies (Bruce Weber’s 1988 doc “Let’s Get Lost” is a good start). Budreau focuses on key events in the 1960s (with flashbacks in sleek black and white that would make great album covers) and pretty much makes up the rest.
At first the results seem both convoluted and one-note, an improvisation that goes nowhere. But when Hawke’s Baker finally slips out of the whiney loser persona and performs “My Funny Valentine,” the scene evokes Baker’s elusive melancholy and wistful torment, making the earlier fumblings worth the struggle.
“It came too easy to him,” laments Baker’s long-suffering manager Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie). By 1966 the easy times are long gone, and Baker lies strung out on heroin in an Italian jail cell staring at his trumpet on the slimy floor. A tarantula crawls out of it. Then, who should walk in but Dino De Laurentiis, offering to make a biopic of Baker’s life?
This never happened, and at this point “Blue” threatens to become a meta-movie as the made-up movie within-the-movie merges with the real movie’s real-life flashbacks. Luckily, a drug dealer fed up with Baker’s debt knocks his teeth out. His career seemingly at its end, Baker falls in love with Jane (a great Carmen Ejogo), the actress who plays his real wife in the movie-within-the-movie, and the story slips into a jazz take on the comeback theme.
For the next two decades, the end notes reveal, Baker made the best music of his career. The film does its job if it encourages people to give that music a listen.
BORN TO BE BLUE
Written and directed by Robert Budreau. Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. Unrated (drug use, narcissism, bad sex).