Blaze plays out like a hardy poem come to life, as much a devastating musical as a beautiful portrait of love and tragedy. But it’s a love story of so many little corners of life, mostly the ones that defined, inspired, and befuddled underground country musician Blaze Foley. Newcomer Ben Dickey portrays the late Arkansan singer and doesn’t let his lack of acting background fool you because he is a revelation here. A singer/songwriter himself, Dickey captures the inviting and sometimes unlikable spirit of Foley, strumming the chords of a loose narrative that just wrench us in the right way. If you’re keen to the music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ or ‘Crazy Heart’, you’ll find a comfort in the music of unsung legend Blaze Foley.
From its inception, the journey of adapting Foley’s life story is encapsulated within the structure of three different timelines in the film: Foley’s recorded performance at the Austin Outhouse (on the night he died), his long-running love with Sybil Rosen, and the guiding of an interview with Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) looking back on Foley’s life. With such effortless direction, Ethan Hawke lets the story glide over with an immense devotion to making art and not just a standard, play-by-play biopic. As those close to the singer have said, Blaze would’ve just wanted to see art. There’s something marvelous happening as the film treks on, following Blaze and then wife, Sybil Rosen, across states and rolling out the fires and joys of living in a treehouse, life on the road, and life on the rocks. His hitchhiking way of touring brought on more troubles with the bottle than a humbling career comfort.
“I don’t want to be a star. I wants to be a legend,” Foley tells Sybil in the back of a pickup truck before the throes of a lifelong meditation of wayward aches. ‘Blaze’, as much as it teases the tropes of a sad, hardened man, plays with a formula of reliving the best memories to recover the best in us. The film is a precious, rustic adaptation of Sybil’s own book, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” where she recollects the bittersweet moments that once were.
Ethan Hawke’s self-proclaimed “country western opera” finds itself comfortable in lush, natural stability. The warm color palette and cinematography by Steve Cosens is one of many defining charms. Dickey and Shawkat are miraculous with chemistry, making it known that Sybil’s character is as much a highlight as Blaze is. If ever Foley had doubts about anything, it was Sybil who reignited his ability to believe again and again that people should be listening to pure talent. She’s supremely free-spirited and has a connection with Blaze that becomes just as much of a key component to the film as the musician’s many profound songs (all part of an amazing soundtrack). Even if Sybil ever questioned the beating energy of confidence, Blaze would amuse her and say it’s the feeling of being alive in the moment. And just like that, their adventures through woodsy whimsy and priceless moments entangled into a lifelong muse. It’s their love story written out like a memory and then pieced together in a heartrending puzzle.
The story of this ‘Duct Tape Messiah’ as told through the lens is almost too relished in its lingering pace midway through. If not that, audiences may not find it all that important if the style isn’t their cup of tea. It’s basked in its own backwoods style, revolting against high standards as much as Blaze Foley himself saw the outside world. The peculiar directorial choices Hawke takes are unmistakingly a comment to a bigger picture, a wider understanding. Seeing Blaze take the stage for the last time becomes something less about himself and more about the veering existence of everyday joes at the dive bar that same night. A subtle, interchanging transition, but still on par with its narrative.
‘Blaze’ is a deserving remembrance of a man we may not have known, but spirited by a swan song legacy, we come out on the other side so touched. Ethan Hawke is surely putting out his best directorial work to date, resting on a handful of past projects but nonetheless showing an artistic precision. Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat are mesmerizing as they live within their characters, breathing life to the best scenes of the film. ‘Blaze’ is noticeably a personal piece of work, handled with care, and the way Hawke rests this project on us is a sight to behold.
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Starring: Charles Adam, Alia Shawkat, Edgar Arreola