I have to wonder if Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s luminous music biopic about little-known country music singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, would have been as transfixing if Hawke hadn’t focused so much on romanticizing poverty. This is Hawke’s third feature film directorial effort. Telling the Outlaw Country musician’s story became a passion project for the Texas-born actor. Foley’s story is one of crushing deprivation, self-sabotage, and ends in the singer’s tragic death at the young age of 39 (don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler; we learn about Foley’s death in the first ten minutes of the picture).
Our society exalts the idea of the starving/suffering artist, and Hawke taps into that with Blaze. Foley was a man who was seemingly incapable of doing anything but making music, regardless of whether he could make a living at it. He was also good at bestowing back-country philosophy on those around him, earning him the nickname Duct Tape Messiah. I think we all know how little money there is in being contemplative about life and our place in the universe.
Hawke bestows on his subject an almost divine nobility. At one point in the film, Foley’s friend and fellow musician Townes Van Zandt gives a speech that crystallizes how both they, everyone in their professional circle, and seemingly Hawke himself view the sacred vow of poverty in pursuit of art. You have to be willing to blow everything off, Van Zandt tells the radio DJ who is interviewing him. Everything. Friends, family, responsibility, money. It would be hard to imagine Blaze being half as engrossing as it is if Foley had been willing to work a shitty 9-to-5 he cared nothing about while only tinkering with music in his free time.
Complicating his portrait of Foley is Hawke’s source material and its author, who collaborated with him on the screenplay. Sybil Rosen was Foley’s long-time romantic partner and served as his artistic muse. She and Hawke adapted her memoir of her time with Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze, together. The portrait she paints of her lover is affectionate, yet it doesn’t shy away from making Foley a multidimensional character with plenty of flaws to humanize him. He was like two people, one character says. One Blaze was quiet and gentle. The other was eaten up with bitterness over his lack of success, which could cause him to self-destruct.
It’s Hawke’s attention to fully developing both Blazes that makes the film sing. We are none of us wholly saints or sinners. It’s the tension between competing versions of ourselves that make us so hard to know, love, and forgive. Hawke and Rosen craft a real flesh-and-blood human in their version of Blaze Foley that transcends the typical burnished portrait we get in biopics.
Just as transcendent as Hawke and Rosen’s characterization of Foley is musician-cum-actor Ben Dickey’s understated, sensitive performance of the man. This is his first major screen performance, but Dickey has been a member of numerous bands, and he released a solo folk album in 2016. His musical acumen gives the performance an authenticity that is difficult to achieve with actors who lack musical training. Despite a dearth of formal acting experience, Dickey doesn’t display any of the drawbacks you would expect. There is not the faintest inkling of self-consciousness to his performance. He inhabits the role like he was born for it.
Equally heart-felt is Alia Shawkat’s performance as Sybil Rosen. The self-described “country music widow” is our gateway into the life of Blaze Foley, and Shawkat imbues her with a tenderness that isn’t easy to forget.
While Hawke’s casting of Dickey and Shawkat in the two leads was inspired, not all of his creative decisions work as well. For the role of Townes Van Zandt, Hawke cast another musician. Van Zandt acts as an anchor for the film; his reminiscences of Foley to a mostly off-screen radio DJ interviewer, played by Hawke, aide the movie’s flashback structure. Singer/songwriter Charlie Sexton makes Van Zandt’s musicality shine, but the self-consciousness that is lacking in Dickey’s performance is present in Sexton’s, especially when he interacts with other characters.
The singer does have the opportunity to give several extended monologs, however, as he tells uninterrupted stories about Foley. These come across as genuine; they play like Sexton addressing a crowd at a concert. The unevenness of the Van Zandt character extends beyond just the performance. Hawke and Rosen incorporated into the story an element involving Van Zandt’s seeming betrayal of Foley, but it’s never satisfactorily explained. The biggest hint we get that Van Zandt did anything seriously wrong is when a fellow musician and mutual friend of both men, a man named Zee, abruptly gets up and leaves in the middle of the radio interview as Van Zandt tells a story about Foley. This event, and Zee’s general demeanor towards Van Zandt throughout the radio interview, makes it feel like a scene or two that would have explained it might have been left on the cutting room floor.
In addition to these missteps, Hawke made other frustrating casting decisions that took me right out of the flow of the movie. Late in the film, three oil tycoons approach Dickey and Van Zandt. They have made a fortune, and they’re itching to get into the country music business. Hawke shows off his movie connections by casting in the cameo roles Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, and, most inexplicably, unless you consider their long working relationship, director Richard Linklater.
One of Hawke’s collaborative decisions that is an unquestionable success is his choice of cinematographer. Steve Cosens – who worked on Born to Be Blue, the 2015 Chet Baker biopic starring Hawke – has made in Blaze the most beautiful film of 2018. The rich, saturated color of the film is gorgeous. It evokes Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ portrait of another flawed singer, albeit a fictional one.
In the end, the visual beauty of the film feels like a bonus. Despite its problems, the emotional beauty and tenderness Hawke, Rosen, Dickey, and Shawkat employ to bring to life a little-known legend of country music make Blaze a touching tribute.
Why it got 4 stars:
- A few minor casting and plot issues aside, Blaze is a beautiful, well-crafted tribute to an artist most people don’t know existed. Hawke proves himself to be an imaginative director.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Speaking of Hawke’s direction, he is effective at building suspense in Blaze. As I said at the beginning of the review, we find out in the first ten minutes of the movie that Blaze will suffer a tragic death. Since we know it’s coming, the anticipation of when it will happen adds to the suspense. Hawke is an expert at drawing this suspense out.
- He also plays with narrative time in a fascinating way in one brief moment of the movie. Blaze is in a parking lot, waiting for Sybil to finish with a doctor appointment. The clinic is right across from the bar where he often plays music. As he watches a man walk across the front of the bar, he and Sybil drive away. The camera then follows the man, who enters the bar. Once inside the bar, we discover that we’ve shifted to a different time. Now, Blaze is playing a set in the bar, and it’s the night he has an altercation with the man who we watched walk into the bar. It’s beautifully executed by Hawke and his editor, Jason Gourson.
- In addition to the lighting of Blaze, cinematographer Steve Cosens incorporated another bold visual stroke. Throughout the movie, for just seconds at a time, Cosens allows the people and objects in the frame to go in and out of focus. It adds to the docu-drama feel of the movie, and fits with the easy-going, lackadaisical sensibility of the characters.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Not much to tell this week. It was a small crowd (due to being in a small theater), but everyone seemed to enjoy it. The strangest thing was the man sitting right next to me got up half way through the movie and never returned. The most striking thing was the number of trucker hats I saw in the crowd. The screening definitely had a country vibe, which I’m not usually a part of, since I’m not a huge country music fan.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys) is going back to his earliest roots by writing and directing the newest entry in the Predator franchise. Black had an acting role in the first Predator film, and he worked as an uncredited script doctor on the screenplay. The Predator will be the sixth entry in the series (if you include the two Alien vs. Predator movies). I’m interested to see what Black does with it.