Waiting for stylised semi-fictional accounts of jazz trumpet legends is like waiting for a bus. Nothing for a while, then two come along at once. Yes, following Don Cheadle’s incredible ‘Miles Ahead’ (a hip look at Miles Davis), writer-director Robert Budreau brings us ‘Born To Be Blue’. Described as “semi-factual, semi-fictional”, this film takes an unorthodox look at the legendary West Coast jazz musician Chet Baker, oft-described as the “James Dean of Jazz”.
I say unorthodox…it was unorthodox once. But now, it’s becoming the norm. Much like ‘Miles Ahead’ before it, ‘Born To Be Blue’ has convinced itself that it’s doing something fresh and original – so much so that it almost walks with a self-confident swagger and winks at the viewer. But in actual fact, it’s nothing new. For example; ‘Miles Ahead’ was framed by an interview, and the cocky Miles Davis told his story ‘with some attitude’, admitting that he embellished the fact – thus the film captured the essence of the man, rather than the truth. ‘Born To Be Blue’ does the same, offering us a look at Chet Baker the man – but not his story. How original.
Set largely in 1966, Chet Baker (a career-best Ethan Hawke) is hired to play himself in a movie about his earlier years when he first tried heroin. He meets and romances actress Jane Azuka (a fictional character made up of several of Baker's women in real life, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo) - but on their first date, Baker is attacked by thugs and his front teeth smashed up. As Baker recovers from his injury, he is unable to play trumpet any better than a novice – this part of the story is true. Baker did sustain multiple injuries after being savagely beaten back in ’66 – making this part of the story the most interesting on offer in ‘Born To Be Blue’. This is the good side of biopics. They entertain, and they educate. The recent Brian Wilson biopic ‘Love & Mercy’ was painstakingly accurate aswell as being a bloody good film. The filmmakers behind that didn’t feel the need to arse around with the truth, so why did Robert Budreau do that here?
Much like in ‘Miles Ahead’, the fictionalised parts are inconsequential and distracting. Yes, Ethan Hawke is extraordinary here - putting everything he’s got into the performance and clearly looking for a (deserved) Oscar nomination. But like all biopics, we’re here for the story. And if it’s all bollocks, what’s the point? It’s a common criticism of films like this, and I can see why. If the whole point of your film is to tell the story of a person’s life, why change it? I’m all for capturing the subject’s essence – I thought the inaccurate ‘Steve Jobs’ starring Michael Fassbender was one of the best films of last year. But while that took liberties with the fact, it still kept things close to the truth and it felt believable. In contrast, ‘Miles Ahead’ turned Miles Davis into a gun-toting gangster who often found himself in car chases. Bullshit. But fitting with Miles’ “tell your story with some attitude” mantra.
‘Born To Be Blue’ is just another addition to the long line of inaccurate biopics. Putting style over substance, the film attempts to be trendy in its delivery – arguably attempting to mimic jazz itself with its slightly hectic improvisation. But despite a phenomenal performance from Hawke, the film ultimately leaves a sour taste in the mouth when you realise just how much it got wrong. Being impressionistic in biographical filmmaking is becoming so common, it would be more unorthodox to tell the story of someone’s life accurately. Sure, ‘Born To Be Blue’ is playful. But for someone with such an interesting life already, it seems like an odd choice to change it around so much. Although equally inaccurate, watch ‘Miles Ahead’ instead. It’s better in every way.
‘Born To Be Blue’ was, unfortunately, born to be forgotten. 2/5.
Born To Be Blue at CeX
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