Blaze film review: The forgotten troubadour

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Ethan Hawke's movie "Blaze". Credit IFC Films

By Mariana Sánchez Gaona
BU News Service

BOSTON— Country music’s best kept secret might just be Blaze Foley. The singer-songwriter who died at 39 from a gunshot wound in 1989 is the topic of Ethan Hawke’s latest directorial cinematic work, Blaze.

The movie is based on Blaze’s partner and muse Sybil Rosen’s memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.” Hawke and Rosen co-wrote the screenplay. The movie diverges from the usual chronological structure of a biopic. Hawke took a chance in showing specific periods of Foley’s life that let the audience see a complex character.

The narrative is divided in the past when Rosen, played by Alia Shawkat, and Foley, interpreted by newcomer Ben Dickey, lived in a tree house. The warm colors and idyllic montages show a dreamer in the cusp of looking for something bigger.

When Blaze and Sybil leave their home to look for better opportunities, Blaze says to Sybil, “I don’t want to be a star, I want to be a legend.”

The movie goes back and forth with Blaze’s performing his repertoire to an indifferent audience at the Austin Outhouse. This was to be his last live recording and performance. The third narrative is a radio interview with his former bandmates, Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), after his death.

Van Zandt’s recount of Blaze’s life during the radio interview creates a contrast between Blaze’s outrageous behavior and the good light he tries to cast over his late friend and himself. As unreliable as this narrator is, he also provides the movie with sincere moments about the value of this unrecognized musician.

There is an overlap between these stories told in flashbacks and Blaze’s relationship with Sybil. While Blaze’s love life deteriorates, he continues his path as a country artist. When they finally break up he tells her that he must let the music take him. It becomes a struggle between what he might become and what he was.

Blaze’s last show was in a dive bar. He recorded it with his own money. It became his last album, “Live at the Austin Outhouse.” This third entwined narrative lets the audience see a glimpse of his talent, his former self, and what usually went wrong during his performances.

The movie can get a little confusing at times with so many temporal jumps. However, it is set on course with the careful crafting of scenes. For instance, the scene where Sybil shadows Blaze’s last moments after he was shot is a simple and powerful piece of cinema.

Hawke’s directing skills are best reflected on the ease his actors show on screen. Ben Dickey’s performance as Blaze Foley is an outstanding achievement. The former musician is the one who introduced Hawke to Foley’s music.

He portrayed a character during different periods of his life covering an emotional range plastered with sincerity. It is rare seeing such display of emotion in a single performance by a first-time actor.

The movie is tied together through Blaze’s music. His songs drive the narrative. They present a man who is reluctant to compromise, and whose success is unattainable.  He resembles the Coen brothers’ fictional character, Llewyn Davis. The musician whose worst enemy is himself. But whose music is honest to a fault.

Foley sings in Clay Pigeons, “change the shape that I’m in and get back in the game, start playin’ again”. He tried to start over and over until he couldn’t do it anymore.

Blaze is a heartbreaking story of the inner struggle to follow your dream. Leaving it all on the table for the journey and not the destination. He might be a champion for some and a cautionary tale for others, but he has definitely become larger than life — almost a legend.

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