'Born To be Blue' is a portrait of a self-destructive artist (R)

Chet Baker (Ethan Hawke) is enjoying a successful career in the 1960s as a jazz trumpeter who also sings, and one of the music’s rare heartthrobs, when he meets Jane (Carmen Ejogo). She’s co-starring with him in a movie about his life, and he has no problem getting motivated for their kissing scenes. And it just so happens that she doesn’t, either.

What Jane doesn’t know – but will soon find out – is that she’s part of a romantic triangle. Her competition is not another woman, but a drug. Baker considers being on heroin essential to performing at his best. Persuading him that he’s mistaken is virtually impossible.

And indeed, it’s hard to argue with the evidence. While under the influence, he’s such a master on his horn that even trumpet legend Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) seems to be jealous. The question is whether Baker truly needs heroin to achieve that state of artistry, or is engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But that question becomes moot when a tragic incident endangers his future as a musician, brings the film production to a halt, and tests his relationship with Jane. Exiled from the stage and the spotlight, Baker could wind up as just another junkie.

Born to Be Blue is a fictionalized account of Baker’s life, but one that gets to the essence of what it means to be an artist. Written and directed by Robert Budreau, the film is reminiscent of Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary about the trumpeter that was similarly as much about mood and atmospherics as about biographical specifics.

Hawke turns in one of his best performances as a man who truly believes that to embrace his art, he must surrender to addiction. His chemistry with Ejogo, who brilliantly portrayed Coretta Scott King in Selma, couldn’t be more compelling.

It’s not necessary to be a jazz fan to get lost in this poetic and poignant film.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Joe Cobden, Tony Nappo.

Writer-director: Robert Budreau.

An IFC Films release. Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, violence, drug use. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Wynwood; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.

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