Film Review: Blaze

An unconventional reimagining of a country-music legend’s career from writer-director Ethan Hawke
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Languid, associative, at times dragging, at other moments deeply affecting, thanks to a song and a trick of the light, Ethan Hawke’s Blaze is difficult to define. It’s based on the life of country singer Blaze Foley, so should we call it a biopic? But Blaze lacks your standard cradle-to-the-grave scope; instead, the movie, directed and co-written (with the late Blaze’s former wife, Sybil Rosen) by Hawke, interweaves three different time periods to paint a portrait of an artist that’s more impressionistic than comprehensive. And yet the movie isn’t nearly abstract enough to be called a “tone poem.” Almost as singular as it claims its subject once was, then, what Blaze does offer is an experience fueled by the undeniable strength of the real Blaze Foley’s country-folk music.

We are given to know our hero through flashbacks and flash-forwards: as he was in his relationship with the aspiring actress, Sybil (Alia Shawkat); on the long night before he met his tragic death; and through the narrative recollections of fellow musicians and friends Townes (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), as they give a radio interview an unrevealed amount of time after Blaze’s death. Blaze is a gentle giant, hippy troubadour, romantic, great talent and—that unfortunate aspect of his character that gives his onscreen story its dramatic weight—a self-destructive mess. We see him falling in love in 1970s Georgia with the intelligent Sybil and living an Edenic life with her in a tree house in the woods. We see him, too, brawling in bars and drunkenly abusing hecklers across the Midwest. And we see him—we hear him, above all else—sing through every high and every low.

The un-billed star of Blaze, the reason you stick with the story despite its relative lack of action and its time-jumping (which takes some getting used to), is the music. Impressive, too, are the handful of great performances given in service to those songs—think of the actors in this film as the equivalent of backup singers to Blaze’s tunes—most notably from Sexton as Townes, who brings such ease to his dialogue you’d think he was improvising on the spot, and Ben Dickey (who, like Sexton, is a musician off-screen as well) as Blaze. The latter is sometimes difficult to understand, with his Southern accent and his lyrical-jive way of talking. At times, when he’s whispering with Sybil in bed, he sounds not unlike a Dixie “Godfather.” But, having never heard any of the originals he covers, I found after a while I ceased to mind how difficult it was to understand Dickey when he spoke; I was only waiting for him to sing again.

Although the screenwriting plays second fiddle to the songwriting here, there are a few noteworthy moments of humor that enliven the longer stretches without a song. Townes and Blaze are given to telling jawing anecdotes that are like short, comic stories unto themselves. (Perhaps unsurprising, coming from author Hawke.) Yes, they reveal things about the characters who tell them, but do these interludes also make the two-hour-plus film longer than it needs to be? Maybe. Possibly. Yes. But Blazeis not an economical movie when it comes to its storytelling, and the color these drawling anecdotes brings is so vivid, their length—that is, the length of the film in its entirety, really—must be given a pass.

In the end, the story of Blaze Foley isn’t so very different from the many other tales you’ve likely heard of talent for a fleeting moment achieving grace, only to be wasted through the self-inflicted cracks of its human vessel. As Leonard Cohen sings of Janis Joplin in his “Chelsea Hotel #2”: “I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.” But more than any unconventional structure, it is the music of Blaze that redeems the dragging bits and makes the movie, and the man, something to attend to.