Musical biopic sings a sad, romantic song
Directed by Ethan Hawke
Cast: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton
Blaze, co-written and directed by independent acting icon and occasional novelist Ethan Hawke, is an umber-hued ramble through the life of alt.country cult figure Blaze Foley. It’s the exact sort of film you’d expect a Sundance Film Festival stalwart to come up with immediately after getting drunk on PBR in some Nashville dive with Jack White. That’s not meant to be an insult or anything, and I have no evidence that Hawke and the former headman of The White Stripes are drinking buds or anything. But it’s a fairly evocative way of describing such a lovingly handcrafted film with such narrow appeal. A hipster who builds his own instruments and records on vintage analog equipment in his parents’ attic for the sake of “authenticity” is the exact sort of muse to inspire this particular romantic requiem to unsung artists.
Blaze Foley was, as Lucinda Williams once described him, “a genius and a beautiful loser.” He stumbled his way, often drunkenly, around the edges of the country music scene for a decade or so, befriending equally troubled (but eventually more successful) country-blues artist Townes Van Zandt. He died, ignominiously, in the late ’80s, all but forgotten by the recording industry (which, to be fair, he spent most of his life mocking).
Hawke’s musical biography is based on the memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by Sybil Rosen. She serves here as Hawke’s co-screenwriter, ensuring the authenticity of the story (at least as she saw it). Rosen was Foley’s romantic partner and functioned as his muse for many years until sorrow and strife and the lonely reality of life on the road tore them apart.
The film skips around quite a bit in time, revisiting the optimistic early days when the hulking “hillbilly” Foley (an alternately savage and tender acting debut from musician Ben Dickey) and the “kinky-haired” Jewish actress Sybil (Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development”) met in a hippie-ish artist commune in Georgia ’round about 1975. That’s contrasted with Foley’s rough final days—typified by a shambolic live recording session at the Austin Outhouse, one of the few remaining bars that would let the trouble-prone Foley in the door. This extended concert sequence, Foley’s melancholy ballads beautifully rendered by Dickey, sets up and introduces many of the film’s fragmented story segments. Adding a further layer of distance from the subject at hand, even the concert is a flashback sequence, described in a posthumous radio interview by Townes Van Zandt (portrayed on screen by blues rock musician Charlie Sexton).
The film conjures up images of Foley as a sort of barstool philosopher, spitting out a stream-
Hawke, who made his directing debut with the arty and meandering 2001 ensemble Chelsea Walls, clearly isn’t interested in pumping out a conventional musical biopic (Walk the Line, I Saw the Light). He takes his time setting up this more impressionistic take on love and loss. At 127 minutes, the film has a few too many verses. But the filmmaker finds a freeform rhythm that works. Most of the scenes are lensed in unhurried master shots, the camera lingering like a mute observer at a distance, not moving, not cutting, not pushing too close into people’s faces. It makes the film feel like a stage play, and it ain’t what you’d call fancy. Hawke seems to have taken his cue from his frequent collaborator, the equally non-showy director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The Newton Boys, Waking Life). Hawke’s humble style, combined with the film’s whiskey-colored cinematography and committed performances give it the unshakable feeling of honesty.
Like its subject, this bittersweet lament is easy to love, sometimes hard to like. In death, Blaze Foley was practically begging to be let off this mortal coil. And it’s hard to determine, with his passing, if his unrestrained passion and handful of great songs outweigh the legacy of his bad behavior and self-destructive tendencies. Blaze isn’t tidy enough to solve the debate for us. Those looking for a more fact-based, cradle-to-grave summation are advised to hunt down Kevin Triplett’s 2011 documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah. Those who just like to hear a sad, sad song once in a while are urged to check out this soulful musical lament.