Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut has been compared to the Inside Llewyn Davis, and it surpasses that film in almost every way. Blaze is wonderfully rich, heartbreakingly real, and told with overwhelming intimacy. Ben Dickey’s portrayal of Blaze Foley is a sight to behold. Go and seek out this film!
During an interview, Townes Van Zandt said, “He was only deemed crazy once,” while his buddy Zee says, a tad judgmentally, “You should really know who he is.” This back and forth comes just after an electric opening flashback sequence of their friend’s high, drunk and crazed behavior while recording a track in one of the last studios that will have him. Their friend was never a star; only a blip on the overall music landscape. He was the human equivalent of an antonym of A Star is Born. In fact, he was a star that never really was; a now celebrated legend for a certain section of the country music scene and even immortalized in a song called “A Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams as she described him as a beautiful loser. After watching the film, you might think she was underselling it, as he was more of big, lovable, dumpster fire that was always ready to ignite just after he was put out.
Blaze is about the father of Texas Outlaw Country musician Blaze Foley (played by folk-rock musician Ben Dickey). The film utilizes dual narrative flashbacks to explore an artist that started a movement where he personally never reached mass audiences and a life where he never managed to get both feet on solid ground. One of those narratives shows us two of Blaze’s closest friends, Townes Van Zandt (played by musician Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Eighth Grade‘s Josh Hamilton), as they reminisce about their friend’s professional career. Van Zandt is the bigger draw, and his word is often taken as fact even though his look back is always through some choice rose colored lenses. Zee often chimes in, correcting those facts as he objects to some of those tales he feels are too tall for their own good.
The other narrative is where Blaze truly shines, as he flashes back about the origins of the songs he is singing in a bar recording a live studio album. He introduces a song by stating, “I thought this song would last forever,” as he remembers a time he was happiest with the love his life Sybil (played with a grounded honesty by Arrested Development’s Alie Shawkack). Each takes a walk down memory lane to another time in his life with refreshing intimacy. The result is an exhilarating reflection on why each song was written that is rarely seen in music biopics. Each track he plays in that dive bar tells a story and each story is as engrossing as the next.
This is the directorial debut from actor Ethan Hawke, a four-time academy award nominee for acting (Training Day, Boyhood) and writing (two nominations coming for the Before trilogy). Hawke has a real eye for detail when it comes to time and place in southern backwoods America. From Blaze and Sybil’s life in an arts community in Georgia, to moving to Austin to make a go of it as a professional musician, to the many seedy dive bars in major cities, everything he puts on camera feels authentic.
Hawke and Sybil Rosen have written a poignant film with countless memorable lines so charming and moving I wouldn’t dare spoil them here. I will say this though: when the couple talks about how she is his muse, the interaction had my heart swelling from the result of a perfect cinematic moment. Their romances is wonderfully rich and heartbreakingly real.
The choice to cast Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley was a risk by Hawke that paid off handsomely. Dickey is a folk-rock musician born in Arkansas and based in Louisiana. Rumor has it he was cast as Foley after Hawke watched him play the title character’s song Clay Pigeons. Dickey’s portrayal of Foley is a true sight to behold. He can be a charming, unkempt, and sweet natured good old boy one minute, then a rambling, self-righteous, substance-fueled jack-ass ready to badger anyone who pisses him off the next. The performance could have been in danger of becoming a caricature, but Dickey never lets it get there.
When it comes down to it the film is a memory play, and a dual one at that. It is described as a reimagining, but it is more of a whisper down the lane and a collection of hand me down stories of a legend within the country music community. Blaze is not afraid to show all the warts that popped up in Foley’s life and those are celebrated more than some of his long overdue recognition. The result is a Texas backwoods tale that looks and feels grounded without the Hollywood glamour.
When Sybil says that she is writing a story about Foley she says, “I didn’t get that far, I mean it’s only one line, but I know the ending.” Blaze Foley was never born a star but her story, with the help of Hawke, has helped immortalize him. Blaze is wonderfully rich, heartbreakingly real, and told with overwhelming intimacy. Go seek out this film.