If you had told me when Ethan Hawke burst onto the Hollywood scene a full thirty years ago that he'd not only maintain his career that long but he'd also continue getting better year after year after year, I'd have probably snickered. To be perfectly honest, I long regarded Hawke as a one or maybe two-note actor, perfectly fine within his range but otherwise nothing to write home about.
I was wrong.
Somewhere along the line, Hawke simply began to click as an actor. He continuously stretched himself and challenged himself and refused to allow himself to be defined as an actor and, as a result, those one or two-notes have expanded into a damn near cinematic symphony.
Think about it. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Boyhood. The Before films. Heck, even The Purge. Hawke has transformed himself into a steady and dependable actor appearing in a balance of both indie and studio projects and has proven naysayers, including this writer, to be wildly wrong.
With Born to be Blue, one of his best performances yet, Hawke does it once again.
Written and directed by Robert Budreau (That Beautiful Somewhere), Born to be Blue is a re-imagining of the 1960s musical comeback of jazz legend Chet Baker, whose lifelong struggle with drugs is well known and well documented and whose comeback in the late 1960's is seen here through the lens of his having been hired to appear in the movie to be based on his own life. Just as the movie is about to get going, it gets shelved after Baker is brutally beaten up by one of the many dealers to whom he's in debt. With only Elaine (Carmen Ejogo, Selma) by his side, Baker is given an ultimate - it's either Elaine or this junk that's controlling his life.
Born to be Blue is at its best when its portraying Baker's fragile and poignant attempt at a comeback, while the film's impact is muted during the times when Budreau turns the camera on Baker's past through multiple flashback scenes that don't quite have the impact they should have and they sure don't sustain the impact of the rest of the film. While it's understandable why Budreau would feel the need to show Baker's glory days, the scenes simply don't have much of an impact emotionally or intellectually.
Born to be Blue doesn't make an effort to hide the impact of drugs on Baker's life, though one could almost argue how it's all presented feels about as jazzy as does Baker's music. There's a certain rhythm to these scenes that softens them emotionally even while they play out realistically. The film doesn't flaunt his use, though it certainly helps us to understand that cycle of pleasure and pain that seemingly drives his ongoing use. Fortunately, the film also doesn't do any "poor me" crap on behalf of Baker by creating any undue sense of sympathy despite the tragedy of it all.
Hawke, who bears at least a modest resemblance to Baker, inhabits the character on a level I've seldom seen from him over the years. While I've grown increasingly impressed with his range, the truth is that even in his most successful roles I've seen glimpses of Ethan Hawke the actor. Hawke immerses himself into the rhythmic world of Baker and for the first time in quite some time, I didn't find myself thinking about Hawke.
Carmen Ejogo is also incredibly good as Elaine, a woman of strength and fierce loyalty whose presence is clearly the foundation upon which Baker lays his comeback. A less skilled actor would have played second fiddle to Baker, but Hawke has always been a gracious performer and the two of them work beautifully parallel to one another.
While there are flaws in Born to be Blue, they are transcended by an endlessly compelling character and the tragic choices he made throughout his life. The film is beautifully lensed by Steve Cosens with a production design by Aidan Leroux that nicely balances the life of a character with immense talent and immense tragedy all folded up into one.
Currently in nationwide limited release with IFC Films, Born to be Blue opens in Indianapolis at Landmark's Keystone Arts Cinema on April 1st. Fans of Baker, musical biopics and jazz should, for the most part, be incredibly satisfied while Ethan Hawke fans will want to consider this non-showy, wonderfully immersive performance a "must see."
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic