Born To Be Blue (4 stars)

Born To Be Blue

Ethan Hawke puts in a powerful performance as celebrated jazz player Chet Baker in this free-form look at his life

From Whiplash to the Miles Ahead movie jazz has come back into vogue, so perhaps it's no surprise that Robert Budreau's Chet Baker biopic should arrive now. Born To Be Blue stars Ethan Hawke as Baker, the West Coast trumpet player who became as heralded as his contemporaries Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Like Don Cheadle's Davis biopic Miles Ahead, Budreau's film takes an unconventional free-form approach and mixes fact and fiction with sly abandon.

Facts from Baker's life – his heroin addiction, the loss of his front teeth caused by a beating – are all present. But, with this story set primarily in 1966, we view these events through the lens of a film-within-a-film, as Baker is asked to play himself in a movie of his life. (Real-life producer Dino De Laurentiis once tried – and failed – to get such a project off the ground). There are flashbacks to the 50s, with Baker playing at the famous Birdland. And then there's Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo, a composite of women Baker knew across his life.

Those looking for a straight cradle-to-the-grave biopic take note; Born To Be Blue is more a mood piece, capturing the textures and torments of an artist's life. While the narrative does settle down, as Hawke takes centre stage, it becomes about the challenges of portraying an enigma like Baker; not unlike Todd Haynes' multi-character take on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There.

Offering an award-worthy performance, Hawke has rarely been better, making you feel every note, every high, every low. The scene in which he's spitting blood as he tries to play his instrument after his teeth have been smashed is uncomfortable in the extreme. Framed with smoky cinematography from Steve Cosens, the result is a cool, crucial indie of the sort that now feels all too rare.

Limited release from Mon 25 Jul.

Born to be Blue

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • Canada / UK
  • 1h 38min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Robert Budreau
  • Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie
  • UK release: 25 July 2016

Unconventional biopic of West Coast trumpet player Chet Baker (Hawke), mixing fact and fiction in a story where Baker is asked to play himself in a movie. Hawke has rarely been better, as the film captures the textures and torments of an artist's life. A cool, crucial indie.