The biopic is a well-worn genre, especially when it comes to musicians. Marion Cotillard, Sissy Spacek, Jamie Foxx, and Reese Witherspoon have won Oscars playing notable musical artists, and plenty more have been nominated. The genre itself was mercilessly lampooned in Walk Hard.
These days, musician biopics still get made, but on a smaller scale than they used to, and lately they tend to fly further under the radar than they used to. (Notable exception: last year’s Straight Outta Compton, which was a massive hit.) There are three such films in theaters right now, telling the stories of musicians Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Hank Williams, but most moviegoing audiences have not heard of these.
Is the musician biopic losing steam as a genre? Have we just seen too many of these?
Yes and no. The traditional cradle-to-grave biopic, done well in Walk The Line and less well a number of other times, is difficult to take seriously these days, because in the case of most famous musical artists, we already know what’s coming. Usually there’s a drug addiction; usually there’s a tempestuous romance; usually there’s a disapproving, naysaying parent; usually there’s a harried manager who wonders why our hero or heroine just can’t keep their shit together; usually there are other famous figures around to liven up the story with starry cameos. Born To Be Blue has all of these standard biopic elements, yet somehow manages to feel fresh at the same time, thanks in large part to its soulful storytelling.
Born To Be Blue tells the story of Chet Baker, a jazz trumpeter and vocalist whose heyday was in the 1950s. (He’s one of my favorite musicians.) The film begins in the 1960s, after Baker has landed in jail thanks to his heroin addiction. A renowned Italian film director approaches Chet in prison, hoping to make a biopic of Chet’s life. Chet agrees, and flirts with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), the feisty actress portraying his ex-wife. The movie ends up being shelved, but Chet and Jane’s off-screen romance continues. Early on, Chet is attacked by some thugs he owes money to, losing his teeth and, more devastatingly, his ability to play the trumpet. But Chet won’t give up. He spits blood while he practices now, and everyone knows he isn’t as good as he used to be. He’s discouraged from continuing, except by Jane.
It’s mostly this conceit that saves Born To Be Blue from feeling like just another product on the music biopic assembly line. We’ve seen so many rise-to-fame stories, and we’ve seen a lot of last-act tales of musicians in decline. What’s less common is seeing a once-great musician have to prove himself all over again, going back to playing pizza parlors and practicing nonstop for days. Chet Baker is essentially on the journey we see musicians in movies take in the first act, but he’s already been great once. He just swallows his pride and puts the work in, and that’s much more admirable than the usual, predictable “I know I’m great, I just need a chance to prove it!” arc we tend to get from these movies — in large part because we actually don’t know if Chet will make it back to the top of the jazz scene again. (Baker is best known for his early work, so unless you’re very keyed in to his biography, there is genuine suspense in where his career is going from here.)
Born To Be Blue is pretty low-key, focusing in on just a few core characters and set mostly in a pretty specific time window. It’s not the music biopic epic that Ray or Walk The Line was. (We do see clips from the scrapped biopic Chet played himself in that fill in some backstory, but these are usually fairly abstract.) Curiously, the film doesn’t seem to have the music rights to any of Chet’s actual recordings, as the versions we get of his instrumental tracks are new reproductions by David Braid, with Hawke providing vocals on a couple tracks as well. (His Baker impression is pretty spot on.) Born To Be Blue is also a Canadian-U.K. co-production, so most of the supporting players are unknowns. (In most movies, we’d get a big star playing Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.)
“My Funny Valentine,” one of Baker’s best known recordings, is prominently featured in the film’s most transcendent moment. Baker didn’t write the song, but when he croons “Is your mouth a little weak?”, it feels entirely personal to the struggle he’s faced playing the trumpet again. Both Hawke and Ejogo are very good in the film, which works well as a tragic romance even despite the accoutrement of Baker’s celebrity. (As in the movie-within-a-movie, Ejogo plays a composite character representing all of Chet’s loves.) It’s a lovely cinematic valentine to Baker’s talent and troubled soul, which he believed went hand-in-hand. Jane holds out hope for Chet, even when he holds no hope for himself.