I was unfamiliar with country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley going into the film of his life, and I came away with respect for a craft I hadn't known existed. Simply titled Blaze, it's the fourth feature directed by Ethan Hawke, whose visual style and sense of storytelling channel the same hushed, quietly proficient tone that he brings to so many of his acting roles.
Hawke has recently gravitated toward portraits of artists and their processes: He profiled pianist Seymour Bernstein in a 2014 documentary and played troubled trumpeter Chet Baker in the unconventional biography Born to Be Blue (2016). At its core, Blaze follows the musical biopic formula: We meet the artist before they're a star and we see them rise to fame (or, in this case, a modest level of recognition), but something happens that impedes their trajectory, and they either recover or everything ends in tragedy.
But watching Blaze, we get the sense that Hawke has studied that biopic blueprint and was determined to upend its conventions. Blaze hits a lot of the traditional biopic notes, but not necessarily in the manner or order we've come to anticipate. It's far more impressionistic in approach, but we still get a clear sense of who Foley was, as an artist and as a man.
The film also has an advantage in that its subject is someone most people, even country music diehards, haven't heard of. Foley's story is new to us, though its details are not entirely anomalous. His career was brief but turbulent. He became totally consumed by booze and drugs, which destroyed his marriage. He was poised for fame that never materialized. And he died in 1989 when he was only 39, killed in the kind of drunken dispute that had become nightly occurrences for him.
Foley left behind a small body of work that was revered by his contemporaries (Merle Haggard, John Prine and Lyle Lovett have covered him) but remains mostly unknown to mainstream audiences. The movie functions, then, as both a primer and tribute to Foley's work, though this is hardly a saintly portrayal. In fact, Foley is often both the hero and the villain of his own story, a man whose personal demons assured that the stardom he reportedly craved would always hover just beyond his grasp.
Blaze is structured as a series of memories that come flooding back all at once, with two of Foley's friends — harmonica player Zee (Josh Hamilton) and songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, an uncanny lookalike) — traipsing through anecdotes about Foley as a radio DJ (played by an off-screen Hawke) regales them with questions. These recollections aren't always in order and not always in focus, but isn't that how it is when we think back on a late friend's legacy?
In one of its nicest touches, the film keeps returning to a single night, a sleepy barroom gig that would end up being Foley's last. Hawke's camera floats around the tavern, giving us glimpses into the mundane lives — the bartenders, the waitresses, the dishwashers, the patrons — that just happened to intersect with Foley's that evening. What first seems like a showy stylistic device ends up grounding the film in a prosaic naturalism, reminding us that Foley's life didn't have the grand sweep of an epic; it was grubby and ordinary, and it ended in mid-verse.
Foley is played by Ben Dickey, an Arkansas-based folk musician who's acting for the first time. It's a remarkable performance, not least because it's from a newcomer, but also because Dickey inhabits that life so completely, making Foley a bear of a man who's both cuddly and volatile. And Alia Shawkat, who so rarely gets the chance to do dramatic work, is very good as Foley's wife Sybil Rosen. She isn't resigned to playing the doting but miserable spouse role we see in so many biopics about troubled male artists. (The real Rosen co-wrote the script with Hawke.)
It's a relief, too, that Hawke allows Foley's music to do most of the legwork, often letting his great songs play through from beginning to end. These long-forgotten elegies about the loneliness of the open road and the challenges of addiction are still potent and beautiful, and as we get lost in them, we realize we're watching a film about the world of country music that plays out like a country song itself. ♦