The Chet Baker portrayed by Ethan Hawke in Robert Budreau's misty biopic Born to Be Blue is midway between beauty and ruin. Behind him are the 1950s, when his easy virtuosity and matinee-idol looks swiftly took Baker from Charlie Parker's sideman to major player on Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz label. Ahead are two peripatetic decades of scattershot gigs and recording sessions, and the heroin addiction that would transform Baker's face into a hollow-eyed mask of deep lines and sunken cheeks.
In Born to Be Blue, writer and director Budreau weaves a fictional romance around Baker's mid-career struggle to orchestrate a comeback after landing in prison on drug charges. In a promising meta-narrative that introduces actress Jane Azuka (Carmen Ejogo), Hawke's Chet has been cast in a Hollywood version of his life (inspired by a never-made Dino de Laurentiis project). This movie-within-a-movie, with its cherry-picked details and glossed-over sins, acknowledges the pitfalls of the musician biopic and signals that Born to Be Blue isn't going to be a note-for-note recreation. But Budreau's variation on the theme of Chet Baker doesn't play out as an inspired improvisation, settling instead into familiar grooves of a redemptive melodrama, with Jane as the embittered savior whose pure heart and clear head could save the tortured genius from himself.
Budreau has obvious affection for Baker, and pinpoints the musician's tragic flaw as the belief that heroin elevates his talent. Hawke's Chet is an unrepentant junkie and manipulator whose claim that he only hurts himself is belied by Jane, a stand-in for all the relationships Baker sacrificed. Their Baker values his transcendent trumpet at the cost of everything else.