If you believe—like myself—that Ethan Hawke is not as well known as he should be after more than three decades of appearing on movie screens, Blaze doesn’t do him any favors.
The 47-year-old Texas-born actor, novelist and filmmaker who’s been nominated for a Tony and four Oscars is seen only from behind (though mostly only heard) during the framing sequences of the biographical “country western opera” he co-wrote and directed about an even lesser-known talent, Blaze Foley.
Born in 1949 as Michael David Fuller, this unsung singer/songwriter called himself Deputy Dawg when he first met Sybil Rosen, Hawke’s co-writer on the film. Her memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree, enlivens one of the three angles from which Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens view Foley’s short life.
That life is introduced during a radio interview conducted by Hawke’s unnamed (and mostly offscreen) DJ, who’s chatting with a pair of Foley’s contemporaries—Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, who doubles as the film’s composer) and fellow musician Zee (a composite character played by Josh Hamilton of Eighth Grade)—who proceed to spin fanciful tales about their friend to the uninitiated DJ about five years after Blaze took a bullet to the gut and died at 39. As we listen to the whiskey-infused anecdotes spun by unreliable narrators (mostly Van Zandt), Hawke begins an initially disorienting trajectory of cutting between Blaze’s hard-drinking touring days, his final show at the Austin Outhouse bar where his most famous recordings originated and his love affair with Sybil (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat). He met the “beautiful little Jewish girl with kinky hair” at an artists community in the wilds of Georgia as his future muse studied to be an actress and he worked odd jobs to make ends meet.
Hawke’s proudly unsentimental biopic nevertheless finds an emotional center during the year when the young lovers lived an Edenic, rent-free life of creativity in an elevated treehouse cobbled together in the southeastern woods. That romantic idyll wouldn’t last, however, once Blaze found his musical voice. Ramblin’ on the road for long stretches, he fell in with Van Zandt and others, hitting the bottle and courting chaos as he performed for unappreciative audiences at bar after bar.
During one of Blaze’s increasingly rare returns home, Sybil asks him why he drinks so much. His answer provides an undramatized key to the character: “Because I don’t like Thorazine.”
While Hawke doesn’t dwell on his subject’s struggles with mental illness, he alludes to a familial pattern during an interlude when Blaze visits his formerly abusive father, a mostly silent old invalid who’s played in an affecting scene by legendary country music icon Kris Kristofferson.
More familiar faces show up when recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Richard Linklater (a filmmaker who’s directed Hawke eight times) amusingly appear as a trio of record executives who promise Blaze the moon. Like most of his relationships, it doesn’t end well.
One actor worth mentioning is the man who plays Blaze himself: Ben Dickey. This bear-like newcomer is stalkier than the real man, with a voice that runs about an octave higher, but Hawke was absolutely right to cast the little-known musician and acting novice to anchor his third dramatic feature as a director. Dickey’s rough edges feel right for the role, as does his easygoing charisma, which shines through during quiet moments with Sybil and his more explosive moments behind the microphone. And it’s Blaze’s music, such as his signature song “Clay Pigeons,” that serves as the film’s backbone. If Blaze’s compositions weren’t so damned good, Hawke’s film would become just another footnote about a forgotten artist. Instead, it’s a long-overdue celebration of a man whose genius has already been enshrined by famous fans who’ve covered his tunes: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, John Prine and Lyle Lovett. Why, Lucinda Williams even wrote a song about him called “Drunken Angel.”
And although he didn’t live long enough to drink himself to death, Blaze barely held it together, using duct tape as a miracle fix-it for nearly everything—from his aging cowboy boots to the silver suits he crafted from it. But no matter how well he patched up the problems in his life, the seams always began to show. Driven by his demons, Blaze Foley was destined to become unglued.
Thankfully, his music will stick around. ◆
Starring Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Alynda Lee Segarra, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Ethan Hawke. Written by Hawke and Sybil Rosen, based on the memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. Directed by Hawke. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square. Hawke will be present for a Q&A at Coolidge Corner after the 3, 5 and 7 pm shows on Sept. 21, and will also introduce the 9:55 pm screening.