‘It makes me happy. I love to get high.’ That’s jazz legend Chet Baker talking about heroin in this biopic that’s not really a biopic. Like improvisational jazz, it skips around, fictionalising bits of his life, trying to capture the essence of the man rather than facts. And it just about works, thanks to Ethan Hawke (‘Boyhood’), whose characters, underneath their dropout-y slacker charm, always seem to have an intense streak.
That’s perfect for Baker (so are Hawke’s sharp cheekbones). He portrays the trumpeter as a little boy lost: selfish, sweet, insecure, arrogant, impossible to live with. Most biopics tiptoe around the flaws – overexplaining, desperate to be liked. This one doesn’t. Hawke isn’t really young enough or pretty enough to play Baker in 1954 at the start of his career, the ‘king of cool’ with fans shrieking outside clubs for him to arrive.
‘Born to Be Blue’ jumps between this era and the late ’60s – a lifetime later for Baker, now ravaged by drugs and attempting to make a comeback. He believes he plays better on heroin: ‘Time stretches when I’m high. I can get in every note.’ His tragedy is that he never fully trusted his big talent; somewhere in his heart didn’t believe he was good enough. It might not be note perfect, jazz fans will probably hate it, and whole chunks might not be true. But ‘Born to Be Blue’ feels like it’s somehow getting inside Chet Baker