Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) - nee Michael David Fuller - was a Texas country singer of some minor note who came to a tragic end at age 39. Few knew about the man and his music - until now. Writer-director Ethan Hawke (yes, that Ethan Hawke) brings Foley’s short life story to us in “Blaze.”
I admit, just before watching “Blaze,” I did a little research on the title character. I had never heard of the brief life of this troubled artist so I was a little skeptical whether it would hold my attention. I underestimated the filmmaking ability of Ethan Hawke, the actor who has appeared in 77 films, and his behind-the-camera skills.
This is not an ordinary biopic, even though it follows most filmmaking conventions in how to tell a story. Here, Foley’s life is told through a combination of flashbacks of his life on the road performing and his relationship with “his little onion,” Blaze’s wife and muse, Sybil Rosen (played by Alia Shawkat). Hawke co-writes the screenplay with Rosen, adapting her memoir. Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.
I realized, about halfway through watching “Blaze,” that I forgot I was seeing a movie about an unknown artist. Instead, I felt like I was a part of that interesting, sad life and felt the whole range of emotions of Foley and Sybil.
Blaze Foley was a complicated man who fought his many demons, especially alcohol addiction and a volatile personality, and could have been a star. Well, maybe not a star but his story is well worthy to be told. Ethan Hawke and his cast and crew not only bring Blaze’s story to life, it is done with an amazing amount of both artistic and technical skill.
With the end of the year and its copious awards coming up, a film like “Blaze” will likely be ignored, except by those who know a great movie when they see it. Hawke shows enormous talent as a filmmaker and proves it here, especially with a tour-de-force debut by Ben Dickey as Foley. The rest of the cast and crew do great work, too. I give it an A-.
As an unseen DJ (Ethan Hawke) interviews musicians Townes van Zandt (musician Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton, "Eighth Grade") the former begins telling tales that evoke hilarious expressions from the latter. Van Zandt has turned attention away from himself and towards the little known musician he considers a legend, "Blaze."
One of the most beautiful and moving films ever made about a musician, "Blaze" reveals its cowriter (with Sybil Rosen)/director Ethan Hawke as a true romantic and its star, musician Ben Dickey, as an extraordinarily natural performer. This clear labor of love follows a familiar arc, but Hawke's three-ply, multi timeline approach makes it fresh while cinematographer Steve Cosens' ("Born to Be Blue") color palette responds to emotions evoked by each.
The first version of Blaze Foley (musician Ben Dickey) we see is not the one we come away from the film with. He's drunk, in a Hunter Thompsonesque mania that is part philosophy, part rant, the type of behavior that got him thrown out of bars where he should have been cultivating fans. This is one of three perspectives Hawke uses, Blaze performing at Austin's The Outhouse before an American flag, his songs punctuating and commenting upon the rest of the action.
While Townes's legend-making is amusing (a famous yarn is told about how Foley's corpse was dug up to retrieve a pawn ticket for his guitar), it is the third strand that is the film's anchor, inspired by Rosen's memoir 'Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.' As Sybil (Alia Shawkat, "Green Room") attempted to rehearse Shakespeare in an artists' collaborative's hall, she had to ask the man working with power tools below to please hold off until she finished. Soon the two were moving in together, into the ramshackle tree house of Sybil's memoir. They are blissful soulmates, their days consisting of music and enjoying each other. Sybil chides her man as he tries on stage names (Michael David Fuller was Foley's real name), finding them distasteful, but it is she who eventually pushes them out of their nest for him to sell his songs to the world.
'I wrote that song for a beautiful little Jewish gal with kinky hair. I thought that song would last forever,' Blaze informs us from the Outhouse stage and we are hooked. How could a romance this glorious end? Cosens filmed their wedding like a rural country daydream, the couple jumping into the air in slo motion after their vows, but his warm, gold-tinged greens, browns and teals pivot on his bluest tone and turn cold as the couple hits the road. A functioning yet ugly apartment replaces the treehouse squat and Rosen dons a waitress uniform while Blaze sings in strip clubs, indulging in their wares. (He'll later adorn the apartment walls with lyrics asking for forgiveness.)
That Hawke skips about his timeline, even within a particular story strand, without losing the through line is a testament to his command of this material. The film is peppered with big names in small roles, the trinity of Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and "Boyhood" director Richard Linklater a trio of oilmen looking to start a recording label, Wyatt Russell dropping in as Blaze and Sybil's 'landlord.' We learn of Foley's awful childhood as a member of The Singing Fuller Family when he and Sybil visit his dad in an institution, Kris Kristofferson's only, repeated line 'Got any cigarettes?' as we hear how he traded the family's food for booze. But this is Dickey and Shawkat's film. Dickey, who looks nothing like the real Blaze Foley, is a giant bear of a man, his childlike nature cutting both ways, his voice melodious in both conversation and song. Shawkat is a freckled goddess, the type of woman a man can sink into with comfort and trust.
Hawke pulls his three separate timelines together to tell us how Blaze Foley died too young, shot by the son of a friend he was attempting to protect. You may never have heard of him or his music (his most famous collaborations were with Merle Haggard and Van Zant and Lucinda Williams wrote a song about him), but Hawke ensures you'll never forget him.
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