Born to Be Blue

Jazz legend Chet Baker finds love and redemption when he stars in a movie about his own troubled life to mount a comeback.


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  • ★★★★ review by Sam Van Hallgren on Letterboxd

    Satisfying as a critique of biopics while still being a satisfying biopic itself. In fact it's so good at getting at the self destructive heart of not just addiction but of a certain kind of artistic temperament that by the end it becomes almost mythic.  

    But the movie avoids making Baker out to be mythic himself. It helps that Baker's reputation is of a brilliant flash in the pan who let drugs destroy him. He doesn't have the same heroic baggage as many biopic subjects. While the movie admires Baker, it never reveres him. And it has the humility to admit that in the end there is no way to fully understand him (or anyone for that matter). It also manages to pull off the rare feat of showing the work it takes to be an artist as well as making us understand the standard he set for himself and what it sounds like when he attains it. And finally, the movie is wise in its implication that redemption stories can have victims. Or that tragedies can contain redemption. Life is complicated.

  • ★★★★ review by Jared on Letterboxd

    Simultaneously functioning as a biting critique of standard fare biopics and a pretty insightful one itself, Born to Be Blue is yet another exploration into the complex relationship between art and abuse of any kind. In Chet Baker's case, that abuse is derived from heroine, a catalyst for Baker's late-career fall and subsequent rise. Born to Be Blue charts that journey, cleverly playing with the fabric of biopics and twisting it along the way. Baker is humanized, an almost entirely flawed figure that is very noticeably selfish and indifferent. It doesn't pretend to know him, to fully comprehend the complexities behind his addiction, why he was so compelled to take the dive time and time again. But that's the strength of the film, it's uncanny ability to explore the self-destructive heart of addiction, but at the same time rejoicing in the mythic connection between suffering and genius. That's the thing isn't it? At the end of the film, it cleverly states that Baker made some of his best music in the height of his addiction. As music fans, we treasure these years of tortured artistic creation, in effect appreciating the toll the abuse took on the artist. But what about Baker's girlfriend? His parents? Or for many artists, their kids? Do they rejoice in the suffering that produced great art? This is the inescapable and often ignored fact, artists are two people at once. A human being and a myth, sometimes it's easier not to differentiate.

    #6 in my Next 15 Watches

    2016 Films Ranked

  • ★★★½ review by Brendan Michaels on Letterboxd


    I love Jazz so this movie was basically for me. I don't know much about Chet Baker and I don't think this was a great way to know who the real Chet Baker was but damn does it make me even more interested in learning more about him.

    Born to be Blue has been described as an anti-biopic. It's a reimagining of Baker's comeback in the 1960s and his struggle with trying to get his career back on track after getting his teeth punched out. 

    Ethan Hawke does a terrific job as Baker. Giving a great grasp on Baker's persona and making it his own and not feeling like a bad impression. Some problems I have with biopics is that the actor playing the real person seems like they are doing an impression rather than trying to be that person (I.E. Chadwick Boseman as James Brown). 

    But what really sticks out to me for the film is the opening. The film opens with one of the best opening shots in a film this year. It foreshadows the oncoming slaught of spiders in his life. A representation of a web of addiction he will throw himself into. He can't help but keep coming to this web even though he knows it will bring him sadness. But as the title suggests Chet was Born to be Blue.

  • ★★★★ review by Dawson Joyce on Letterboxd

    Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances in a long time as music legend Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, a strong effort from writer/director Robert Budreau that's surprisingly and refreshingly more unique than most biopics.

  • ★★★½ review by Kevin Jones on Letterboxd

    2016 Ranked

    Far from your typical musical biopic, Born to Be Blue tells the tragic tale of jazz legend Chet Baker. Plagued with heroin addiction, but blessed with a musical gift, Baker is a truly tragic figure brought to life by Ethan Hawke. With a knack for telling a quality story that adequately blends Baker's earlier days with the beginning of his resurgence, Born to Be Blue manages to feel wholly unique in its biographical approach to a story that is largely pretty typical in the musical biopic subgenre.

    In all of these films, a talented musician cheats on his women and does drugs to the point of being a hopeless addict. Scenes of adultery and drug use are juxtaposed with that musician turning in tremendous performance after tremendous performance. The end result is a heart wrenching look at the marriage of abuse and talent. Born to Be Blue touches on a lot of these same notes, but is largely quite unique. With flashbacks taken from a film about his own life done by Baker (Hawke) put shoulder-to-shoulder with scenes from the "modern" day of Baker making his comeback, the film's narrative never feels stale. Instead, its focus on his drug abuse feels largely in-reflection as he tries to move past it. Yet, at the same time, it shows the siren call of the drugs and the feeling of inadequacy that haunts musicians who have convinced themselves they need the drugs to perform. While he most certainly still battles drug use in the "modern" day, the musings and explanation as to why it is addictive (beyond it being just naturally addictive) to talented musicians elevates Born to Be Blue above classic musician biopics. It does not just show him using drugs, which would be deeply affecting on its own. Instead, it takes it a step further and shows him doing drugs, while explaining why he uses them, which practically rips your heart out.

    In the lead role, Ethan Hawke is tremendous. I do not know if it was his real singing voice (I assume the trumpet was not him, maybe I am wrong), but he was terrific. Even if none of the music was him, his performance was still terrific. He really brings Baker to you and makes you feel empathy for him as you watch his downfall, rise, and self-medication. From his portrayal, Hawke makes the viewer root for Baker, even if you know he will trip and fall over-and-over again.

    Visually, the film is very good. With lush blue hues touching many of the shots, Born to Be Blue imbues the film with the sadness and heartache felt by Baker. As he performs, the film is most prominently covered with blue, showcasing how something that should bring him so much instead brings so much agony given the self-doubt and addiction that haunts him as a result. The jazz music score itself even proves quite haunting at times with solemn notes accompanying many scenes.

    As a whole, Born to Be Blue is a pretty good film with a killer lead performance from Ethan Hawke, as well as terrific use of color and a unique approach to a well-trodden tale of drug abuse by musicians.

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