The opening scene of “Born to Be Blue” is simple and quiet. Famed jazz musician Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) stares down the bell of his trombone as he lies on the floor of a prison cell. In this moment and throughout most of the film, it is as if the two are facing off.
Director and writer Robert Budreau paints an intimate picture of Baker’s battle with heroin addiction and obsession with his craft as he tries to rebuild his career after his drug dealer knocks his teeth out. In its most poignant moments, however, it doesn’t matter who the film is about; the struggle depicted is universally relatable. Budreau knows this, and instead of focusing on Baker’s later years or biggest successes, the audience gets a more personal look at his relationships with the friends, lovers and family in his life.
Hawke’s earnest portrayal of Baker carries the bulk of the film. His soft-spoken dialogue and dedication to embodying the character, rather than mimicking him, make the viewer root for a man who repeatedly disappoints.
For the film, Hawke spent months learning to play the trumpet and taking vocal lessons, and his familiarity with the instrument pays off in some of the film’s most memorable scenes. In one telling instance, Hawke sits in a bathtub just after getting his teeth replaced. With pained breaths, he blows on his mouthpiece, pausing to adjust his new dentures. He stops each note to reveal a blood-stained mouth and more blood dripping out of his horn.
The determination to succeed and fight through the pain provides great insight into who Baker is at his core — passionate to an extent most cannot comprehend. At the film’s core, it poses a question: Does Baker want to use this passion to create a life of professional prestige or personal fulfillment?