With impressive direction from Ethan Hawke and a star-making debut performance from musician Ben Dickey, Blaze sprawls across decades to detail the life and death of failed musician and gifted songwriter, Blaze Foley. A self-described “Gonzo Indie Country-Western Opera,” Blaze utilizes gorgeous costume design and Foley’s iconic repertoire to strengthen the already heartbreaking and poetic true life story. Hawke’s devotion to his subject proves tremendously important, as he elevates Foley’s story to a mythical status and cements Blaze as one of the great music biopics of all time.
As the film begins, we see a man sitting at a drum set, clearly under the influence of drugs or alcohol (or both), ranting incoherently about Cesar Chavez. This is Blaze Foley. This may be the first time we see the titular character, but it isn’t the beginning of his story. It’s a brief scene, maybe only a minute long, but it gives a taste of what is to come. The first half of the film is about the birth of his songwriting and his relationship with Sybil Rosen, who wrote the memoir on which Blaze is based. These gorgeous memories are just that— memories. Though they look and feel carefree, there is a growing anxiety that his life is about to change. That opening image, the one of a man on the brink of self destruction, is always fresh in your mind. As Hawke explores the scenes of Blaze’s idyllic past, he also punctuates them with two alternate timelines. The first centers on a reserved and lethargic Blaze as he performs his final live show. The other is a pseudo-diegetic radio interview with two of his friends, Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton). The interviewer, who hardly speaks and is shown only from behind, is played by Hawke himself. These three winding worlds of temporal dissonance, which Hawke describes as “past, present, and future,” lull the audience into a dream-like trance. Though clearly disjointed, Blaze is a film ripe with beauty, hopefulness and cynicism.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its performances. Newcomer Ben Dickey gives a decidedly brilliant performance as the troubled country star. Already an accomplished musician and a fan of Foley’s work, Dickey prepared for the role by learning all of Foley’s songs and writing daily postcards to Foley’s ex-wife and muse, Sybil Rosen (played by Alia Shawkat in the film). Rosen gave Dickey firsthand insight into the man who was Blaze Foley, all the way down to the smallest details of which fingers he used to play specific songs. The result of this unconventional preparation is magnificent— a teddy bear of a man whose soft-spoken platitudes read simultaneously as honest and artificial. Rosen’s real life relationship with Foley provides the primary perspective of the film, so much like the real Foley, the film’s version is a case study in contradiction, asserting his accomplishments without recognizing his own faults. The other standout performance of the film comes from another non-actor, Charlie Sexton. Having previously cameoed in Linklater’s Boyhood alongside Ethan Hawke, Sexton skillfully delivers one of the most captivating performances of the year. As the far more famous but equally troubled rocker, Sexton breathes a quiet intensity and cockeyed demeanor that perfectly pits him against Dickey’s Foley and anyone else who gets in his way. The only character to appear in all three timelines, Van Zandt is likely the most unreliable narrator of the film, which is probably why he’s the most fun. His perspective on Foley is completely biased, and his various lies (or half-truths) create a narrative discord that echoes the structure of the film itself.
But what Blaze lacks in narrative cohesiveness, it makes up for in free-flowing honesty. Hawke may not be totally sure of his narrative intentions— is Blaze a memory? A dream? A painting? An opera, or ballad? Or maybe it is a blues song, as he suggested in one interview. No matter the definition, one thing it is for sure is rambling. It is sprawling and disjointed, as if Hawke couldn’t be bothered with anything other than the truth. And while that makes for an inherently flawed film, it also makes for an admirable one. Blaze is not likely to find success with moviegoers en masse, but for the people who will seek it out (whether for Hawke or Foley or even just some good old country music), it will prove a emotional and cinematic experience. ★★★★½