"All biopics are works of fiction," asserted Ethan Hawke after the screening of Robert Budreau's latest film at South by Southwest. The actor was addressing the writer-director's decision to approach the story of Chet Baker using a blend of fact and fantasy.
Born to Be Blue is billed as an "anti-biopic." On the one hand, it chronicles a challenging chapter in the life of the West Coast trumpet legend. On the other, it's the cinematic equivalent of a jazz solo, creating things out of thin air as it goes along.
For example, the entire first act. The opening shot reveals '50s musical icon Baker sprawled on the floor of an Italian cell in 1966. He's hallucinating, imagining a tarantula emerging from his horn. Which isn't a whole lot weirder than what Budreau dreams up next — a prison guard lets in Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis, who springs Baker to help him star in a movie about his life.
Of course, this never happened. But that doesn't prevent Budreau from segueing to the opening scenes of the imaginary movie, shot in black and white, set in 1954 and immortalizing a performance that Baker really gave. It was at the nightclub Birdland, in the presence of East Coast trumpet legend Miles Davis (Kedar Brown).
In the "movie," Carmen Ejogo plays Baker's wife, Jane. She delivers an affecting performance, despite being a composite invented as a stand-in for the various women in the photogenic artist's life. In an amazingly smooth narrative move, Budreau has the musician and the actress walk out of the fake film and into real life, as romance blossoms between them. It's a seamless transition — out of the Chet Baker movie that was never made and into the one you're watching.
Here Hawke comes into focus as the fragile, self-absorbed yet indefatigable human being Baker was. It's perhaps the actor's finest, most inventive work to date. The picture compresses Baker's methadone years, the interval between periods of raging heroin addiction. Thugs knocked out Baker's teeth after a drug deal went bad, so now the artist is preoccupied not merely with staying clean but with miraculously relearning to play his instrument. The picture depicts the process in moving, meticulous detail, beginning with a heartbreaking scene in which Baker sits in a bathtub and blows strangled squawks as blood streams from his mouth.
With Jane as his rock, he pumps gas, practices obsessively and eventually jams with an amateur combo at a small café — only to be told he might want to practice some more before coming back. And practice he does. He develops a new embouchure that lends his playing a deeper, more soulful sound. And he comes back — to the café and, ultimately, to Birdland.
To heroin, as well. More than any other factor, what qualifies Budreau's homage as an "anti-biopic" is his defiance of genre tradition. Most filmmakers would've ended the movie on a triumphant note, with Baker staying clean long enough to "find redemption" and reclaim his career. The filmmaker doesn't stop there.
He's more interested in what made his subject tick than in a traditionally happy ending. In a powerful late scene, Baker speaks to the relationship between his addiction and his art. "Time gets wider," he explains, "not just longer, and I can get inside every note." A closing intertitle informs the viewer that Baker spent the last decade of his life in Europe, using heroin and making much of his greatest music.
As an antidrug message, Born to Be Blue blows. As the study of a famous creative figure, it gets inside to a degree biopics rarely do.