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Ethan Hawk as Chet Baker

It would be impossible to “sanitize” the story of Chet Baker (1929-68), the talented but tormented trumpet player who became a legend in his own time, despite his ongoing efforts to sabotage himself. His was the world of the blues, awash in sadness, self-loathing, self-destruction, and a distinctive sound that still wins admirers the world over.

Writer/producer/director Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue explores those pivotal years in Baker’s life when his career came crashing down, fueled by drink and drugs, and his desperate attempt to rebuild the life that he himself had shattered.

Ethan Hawke, who bears a pretty fair resemblance to the real Baker, digs deep to find the soul of the man, and delivers one of the finest performances of his career.

Like Miles Ahead, Born to Be Blue doesn’t purport to be a biography, but rather a dramatization of factual events and informed conjecture – although much of it doesn’t seem to be far out of the realm of credibility. Additionally, each film adopts a specific tone pertaining to its subject and his music. Born to Be Blue has a seamy, bluesy ambiance, augmented beautifully by Steve Cosens’ cinematography, which smoothly segues from black-and-white to color, providing iconic hues for its iconic subject.

This is not the first attempt to bring Chet Baker to the screen, nor Hawke’s. For some years he and longtime collaborator Richard Linklater tried to produce a feature, and throughout the ‘90s Brad Pitt’s name was bandied about to play the trumpeter. Kevin Turoctte provides the licks, but Hawke looks most convincing as the man with the horn, and his empathy for the role is evident – even when playing Baker at his most troubled and tormented.

There are solid contributions by Stephen McHattie and Janet Laine-Green as Baker’s parents, the former barely able to conceal his disdain – or his grudging envy; Callum Keith Rennie as Baker’s long-suffering but supportive producer, and Tony Nappo as a gruff probation officer who comes to appreciate Baker’s talents – and his efforts to stay clean.

Carmen Ejogo is excellent as Jane, the actress playing Baker’s wife Elaine in the (unfinished) film-within-a-film, who stands by her man as long as possible. Her character is a composite of various women in Baker’s life, but Ejogo offers a seamless interpretation, as well as the film’s pivotal moment where, during his comeback, he sings “My Funny Valentine” while looking at her, and she slowly realizes that he’s not singing about her at all.

Born to be Blue opens Friday

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