Ethan Hawke Gives Inspiring Performance as Jazz Legend Chet Baker in ‘Born to Be Blue’

A fascinating chapter in the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is dramatized in the film “Born to Be Blue.” Ethan Hawke stars as Baker, a major figure in the West Coast jazz scene. This is not a traditional biopic as the focus is on one chapter in Baker’s life. And while the film contains plenty of quality jazz music, the story is really about addiction and the artist’s road to redemption following a dark period.

The film opens in 1966 with a strung-out Baker in an Italian prison, presumably for drugs. A film producer shows up and offers him a role in a major motion picture; cut to a black and white flashback to over 10 years earlier when Baker is in his prime. He plays to a club full of adoring, mostly female friends. Also, in attendance is his rival Miles Davis (Kedar Brown). One eager young lady accompanies Chet to his hotel room and seduces him into injecting heroin for the first time. Their rendezvous is soon broken up by the arrival of Chet’s angry wife Elaine. The scene suddenly turns to color and it is revealed that what just took place was part of a film about Chet’s life in which he plays himself. After the director calls cut, Chet naturally proceeds to flirt with Jane, the actress playing Elaine (Carmen Ejogo).

Chet talks Jane into dating him, but their budding romance is tested when a couple of drug dealers beat his face in. As a result of the attack, which damaged his facial muscles and knocked out several teeth, Chet is unable to do the thing that he loves most, play his trumpet. This setback combined with the methadone he is on to combat his heroin addiction has limited his creativity and put his career on hold. With Jane, he heads home to Oklahoma for an extended stay where his farmer parents await. As is the case with most male musicians in biopics, Chet has a strained relation with his father (Stephen McHattie). The elder Baker advises his son to take a job pumping gas at the local filling station. Instead of being crushed, Chet humbles himself and takes the job.

Once back in Los Angeles, he sets about getting his life and career on track. Chet picks up his trumpet and starts to work his way back up, playing at a pizza parlor while working odd jobs in order to appease his probation officer, Reid (Tony Nappo). Chet also works to rebuild a relationship with his old producer, Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), and hopes he will help make his comeback happen.

Jane, a character who is a composite of multiple significant women in the life of the real Chet, is the person to whom he is most desirous to prove himself. In Jane, writer/director Robert Budreau has created a strong female character who does more than wipe her man’s brow and offer him a shoulder to cry on. In addition to being Chet’s rock, she also continues her career as an actress. These two roles contend with each other after Chet’s big comeback gig in New York conflicts with an important audition, and she is forced to make a difficult choice.

“Born to Be Blue” is an inspiring story but not always uplifting. As Chet’s personal life improves, he continues to deal with demons that hinder his creativity. As he tells Jane, methadone, which is as addictive as heroin without the high, feels “like a condom.” While Chet struggles with addiction, his loved ones struggle to realize that they may not be able to save them. Far from a melodrama, “Born to Be Blue” paints a realistic portrait of addiction. Like the cool jazz music Baker was known for, Hawke gives a performance that is both subtle and soulful.

Born to Be Blue” opens in select theaters March 23 and on VOD March 31. It can be viewed in Los Angeles at The Landmark.