"WE WEREN'T INTERESTED in the specific detail of what exactly happened or what didn't happen," director Robert Budreau said to the Globe and Mail of Born to Be Blue, his biopic of famed and troubled jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. That's not the kind of disclaimer you generally want to hear about a film based on a real person, but it's necessary to keep in mind before viewing this well-intentioned, well-made effort.
You won't get the exact truth of Baker's life and career here—one that reached impressive heights and devastating lows. Nor will you get the complete story as Budreau homes in on a few years when the musician struggled to find his chops again after having his teeth knocked out (in the film, it was thugs trying to collect a debt; in reality, it was a drug deal gone very wrong) and trying to kick a heroin habit. Blue is a hero's journey that willfully leaves out broken marriages, a further decline into addiction, and a lengthy personal exile in Europe.
With the director's caveat in mind, you'll more easily be able to see the greatness within the film. Ethan Hawke perfectly captures the scared child who seemed to reside within Baker throughout his entire life, balancing it with the right notes of charm and despair. He's matched every step of the way by Carmen Ejogo, who plays his caretaker and lover, an amalgam representing the many women who looked after the trumpeter in his life.
Even when it stumbles dramatically, Blue is sumptuous to look at, with cinematographer Steve Cosens evoking the portraits of Herman Leonard and Let's Get Lost, Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary about Baker. Blue may not be the most complete portrait of the artist, but its sumptuous images and sensitive performances provide a rough sketch to entertain devotees and neophytes alike.