In publishing, there's no confusion about what constitutes a biography. If an author tells the life of Abraham Lincoln from log cabin days to the Ford's Theatre balcony, it's a biography. If the author writes a 500-page interior monologue in which Lincoln worries over the demands of his office, or depicts Lincoln doing things which do not appear in the historical record, like getting into disguise to lead the troops at Gettysburg or fighting off an alien invasion, we call it historical fiction.
A movie biography is a different thing altogether; few go for the cradle-to-grave approach and most limit the life to a confined period or a particular set of events, the better to create drama or isolate the dominant themes that make the subject of interest. The recent Trumbo, for example, covers only about a dozen of its subject's 71 years, the period of the Hollywood blacklist.
As viewers, we accept filmmakers emphasizing a specific dramatic event as an excuse to string a biographical story along in flashbacks. We also accept dramatic license and the slight manipulation of dates and times and details. But when did we decide that it was acceptable for filmmakers to throw out the facts of a person's life altogether, as long as its major dramatic theme (Trumbo = blacklisted writer) stays intact?
The case in point: Born to Be Blue, one of several current films about the lives of important musical figures. (It opens the same weekend as the Hank Williams story I Saw the Light, to be followed in a few weeks by Don Cheadle's portrayal of Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.) Born to be Blue is the story of jazz legend Chet Baker, the Oklahoma-born trumpeter who was barely in his twenties when he and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan were leading figures of the cool school, the West Coast's answer to New York bop. Baker's youth and handsome features set him apart as the jazz world's own James Dean/Sinatra/Elvis hybrid, and he was even recruited by Hollywood studios for a potential film career. Drug problems and his own stubbornness made him reject that path. Instead, he headed to Europe. If you're familiar with Baker's work or you've seen the 1988 documentary Let's Get Lost, you know the shorthand version of his life: comebacks, setbacks and a lifelong addiction to heroin that ruined his pretty-boy looks but kept him functioning musically until his death at the age of 58.
Born to be Blue includes much of the above information about Baker, so I guess it qualifies as a biography, but only in the most general way. It follows those details, yet nearly every scene wrapped around them is completely fictional.
The film begins in 1966, when an American film director, referred to only as Nick, rescues Baker (Ethan Hawke) from an Italian jail and takes him back to Los Angeles to star in a semi-autobiographical film. None of this is true in any way. (Baker appeared in two films but never really pursued an acting career. He was jailed in Italy but only returned to the U.S. after being deported from West Germany. There is no record of any American film work at this time.) The film project falls apart, but Baker pursues a romance with his leading lady, Elaine (Carmen Ejogo, last seen as Coretta King in Selma), who is by his side when he is brutally attacked by the drug dealers to whom he is in debt, losing his front teeth in the beating. (The attack, and its devastating effect on his mouth, really happened, but there are conflicting versions of the specifics, ranging from a robbery attempt to a drug deal gone sour.)
Most of Born to be Blue is the familiar story of an artist's painful comeback — rebuilding his embouchure, or ability to use the muscles of his lips, and working his way back into the jazz world, leading up to a much-coveted slot at Birdland, with Miles and Dizzy in the house!
Does it matter that most viewers know how this will turn out? Does it matter that most of this true story never happened? The answer, surprisingly, is not as much as you might expect. (Perhaps the two questions cancel each other out.)
As written and directed by Robert Budreau, the film begins in full print-the-legend mode and never looks back. (Budreau directed an earlier short, The Death of Chet Baker, with Stephen McHattie — who plays Baker's father in the new film — as the musician.) Born to be Blue isn't about separating the reputation from the reality; it's about bridging them by bringing the former to life, and for the most part the film does a remarkably good job, mostly through the exceptional work of Hawke, who has become one of the most reliable (and underrated) actors working today.
Ejogo and other cast members are good, but the film is, in spirit, very much a one-man show. Surrounded by characters who are either composites of various figures from Baker's life or caricatures of famous people, it's up to Hawke to hold the film together. He does so not only by convincingly mimicking the trumpeter's fingering and singing, but by capturing the many aspects of an addictive personality: the childlike neediness, the flights of ambition and the depths of self-loathing that guided his life. Hawke allows the film to bring us face to face with something very close to the real Baker, even as we quibble about some details or more blatant transgressions of the truth. It's a shaky biography but an honest picture, and that's no small achievement.