Most biopics of musicians try to cover too much ground, telling artists' stories from birth to death while focusing more on their weaknesses than their work. In "Born to Be Blue," writer-director Robert Budreau doesn't shy away from jazz legend Chet Baker's addiction to heroin or his struggle to relearn his instrument after suffering a busted mouth. But by keeping the movie's goals and scale modest, Budreau makes something that should resonate with Baker fans and newcomers alike.
Ethan Hawke projects an appealing fragility as Baker, playing the trumpeter as gentle, soulful and deeply embarrassed by his failures. Aside from a few key flashbacks, "Born to Be Blue" stays rooted in the late 1960s, following Baker over just a few years as he attempts to rebuild his career after an assault leaves him toothless.
Carmen Ejogo plays Jane, an actress who becomes Baker's girlfriend and support system, encouraging him as he works his way back in the California jazz scene — from sitting in on unpaid jam sessions to working as an anonymous session musician.
Jane is a fictional character, based on several women in Baker's life. "Born to Be Blue" takes similar liberties with the timeline of its subject's comeback and with the basic facts of his biography, already well chronicled in Bruce Weber's 1988 Baker documentary, "Let's Get Lost."
Budreau does this intentionally, to make the material more like a movie and less like a dry recitation of dates and events. The film even opens with Baker playing "himself" in a corny Italian biopic (opposite Jane), which is the first cue that "Born to Be Blue" intends to defy audience expectations.
Budreau doesn't entirely avoid cliché, however. Characters establish time and place by saying things like "Dylan just went electric!" And the movie resorts to pat pop-psychology in a sequence where Chet and Jane visit his disapproving family in Oklahoma — implying that an overly stern dad led to Baker sticking a needle in his arm.
But there's also another moment in the film where Baker says that he got hooked on heroin for no particular reason beyond "it just makes me happy." A good portion of "Born to Be Blue" is about how even a guy trying to stay clean needs to be allowed moments of melancholy without his loved ones worrying that he's destined for a fall.
What makes this movie such a refreshing change of pace for this genre is that it doesn't divide "genius Chet" from "junkie Chet." They're both degrees of the same well-meaning guy, who knows he has to be sober to be a reliable working musician but is also sure that he can never really cut loose without the drugs to numb his pain.
Though "Born to Be Blue" doesn't aspire to full-fledged biography, it does explain what made Baker special, describing how he pared his trumpeting and singing style in increasingly innovative ways. More important, it shows how he struggled nearly every day with a tough choice: living peacefully out of the spotlight or putting himself into high-pressure situations where he'd be tempted to use again.
By reducing Baker's story to just a couple of pivotal years, Budreau makes every moment matter, including a tense final scene that treats the preparation for a performance like a duel at high noon. Like Baker himself, "Born to Be Blue" finds drama in minimalism.
'Born to Be Blue'
MPAA rating: R, for drug use, language, some sexuality and brief violence
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes