Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Blaze Foley. If you don’t know, he was a somewhat obscure country singer-songwriter who, in spite of his musical gifts, never quite made it to stardom before he was shot and killed in 1989. The blaze was a friend and contemporary of the more famous Townes Van Zandt but remained in the relative backwoods of the music world until his untimely death at the age of thirty-nine. Whether or not you’ve heard of Blaze and whether or not you’re a fan of his kind of music, it is difficult not to be coaxed into liking Blaze, actor and director Ethan Hawke’s biographical portrait of Foley’s life. Though far from perfect, Hawke’s film is a poetic, enthralling meditation about a complicated man who impacted everyone he encountered.
The movie takes a look at the various reasons why Foley, a burly, raspy, bear of a man with a penchant for love and alcohol (played by musician Ben Dickey, in what you wouldn’t think to be his first stab at acting) never struck legitimate mainstream success. It also pays particular attention to his romantic relationship and eventual marriage to the love of his life, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, further demonstrating her immense depth and range), and the trajectory that they shared for a while. The narrative is roughly structured into three parts. Some of it takes place during a performance that Foley gave at a bar on the day that he died, and some of it recounts, through dreamlike flashbacks, the arc of Blaze and Sybil’s romance. A radio interview with Van Zandt (a magnetic Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) frames these two threads, as the two men reminisce about their time spent with Blaze.
At times, this structural technique works against the film. Hawke begins the movie deftly weaving the three segments together, but then strays from both the interview and the performance for one long stretch. Here, there’s a slight sense of imbalance, as though the editing could have been a bit tighter to better convey the emotional punches that the intercutting initially communicated so well. Without that editing, the movie, which already clocks in at over two hours, sags a bit. In another film, this meandering might be a legitimate problem, but in Blaze, it doesn’t ultimately detract. The plot’s pace and progression flow parallel to the smooth and gentle grace of Blaze’s music and, at times, each of the film’s segments is so compelling that it can be hard to decide which one you might prefer. But to question Blaze’s structure might be to miss the point; part of the film’s aura radiates from its sense of meandering ease, from its lack of abrupt narrative punctuation.
The flashbacks to Blaze and Sybil’s time together contain the most emotional richness. This isn’t entirely surprising, considering Hawke co-wrote the film with Sybil Rosen and based it off on her memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. One can’t help but wonder how Rosen’s perspective shapes this take on Foley, the kind of man he was, and the kind of woman she is. Still, the film has a sense of honesty and integrity. Hawke’s vision sees virtues and flaws as inseparable traits. Blaze battled a great many demons (including a past with an abusive, alcoholic father), and the film makes it clear, through signs both overt and subtle, that the beauty in Blaze’s work went hand-in-hand with his pain.
Ethan Hawke is experiencing something of a personal renaissance. With Blaze and his recent performance in First Reformed, along with countless recent profiles on him, it appears the dynamic actor, director, and overall artist is finally achieving the high praise he deserves. In that sense, it’s worth considering the ways in which Blaze culminates many of Hawke’s most cherished attributes. In the film, for example, one can feel the raw emotionality of that actor who got his start shedding tears in Dead Poets Society, and the writer who honed his humanistic eye with brilliant minds like Richard Linklater (who, coincidentally, has a bit part in Blaze).
There are also subtle yet notable parallels between Hawke and Blaze’s careers. Hawke is an artist who has never compromised his integrity in the face of criticism, much like how Blaze Foley weathered his lack of outward success. Blaze never did reach the kind of stardom that Hawke has, nor the critical acclaim that Hawke will continue to receive over the course of this year and beyond. There’s a bittersweet irony there, in Hawke portraying the tragic life of a man who never reached stardom, just as he himself draws ever closer to the pinnacle of stardom.
Whether or not Hawke is conveying a sort of darker, shadowy, alternate version of himself may not be relevant compared to the larger endeavor at hand. The director didn’t get where he is by chasing fame. He marched to the beat of his own drum. Similarly, Blaze Foley was never concerned with stardom and says as much in the film. He said he wanted to be a legend, not a star. Perhaps that’s what Hawke is trying to do with Blaze. You might not know who Blaze Foley is now, and he may still go unheard of by those who don’t see this film. But for those who do see it, Blaze’s story will leave a stamp on your emotional landscape. Sybil wrote a book about him. Van Zandt and his friends spoke about him. Famous musicians have covered his music, and now Ethan Hawke made a film about him. What more could a legend ask for?
Watch Now: For a look at another musical legend, be sure to check out the documentary, Be Here to Love Me, about the Townes Van Zandt, and for more of the great Ethan Hawke, check out his performance in The Woman in the Fifth, both streaming now on Fandor!