Blaze, the latest effort from director Ethan Hawke, is an easy-to-like biopic filled with country-spun wisdom like “Rain doesn’t try to fall, it just falls.” Clearly inspired by his work on the Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue, Hawke’s new film attempts to chronicle the life of its subject through not merely an ABC chronology of his life but through a structure reflective of his art. In its best moments, Blaze feels like a cinematic representation of not just Blaze Foley’s life but his music. This film owes everything to the likable, lived-in performances of Ben Dickey (playing the titular Blaze Foley) and Alia Shawkat (who plays his love, Sybil Rosen).
If you don’t know the name Blaze Foley, you’re not alone. He was something of a contemporary of artists like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt, who was actually a friend and collaborator. Nelson even recorded one of Foley’s songs. Foley had a couple of minor hits like “Clay Pigeons” and “If I Could Only Fly”; however, he pretty much lived up to what he says in Hawke’s film: “I don’t want to be a star; I want to be a legend.” Never quite a star, Foley nevertheless was a legend to those who loved him.
Hawke manages to avoid the typical biopic traps by sticking to three major storylines that occur at three different points in history. One of the major framing devices of this film is a radio interview being done with Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and one of Foley’s close friends and collaborators, Zee (Josh Hamilton, fresh off of his fantastic turn in Eighth Grade). The two men reminisce about Foley with occasional prodding from the interviewer, voiced by Hawke himself. The film also flashes back regularly to the last night of Foley’s life, during which he recorded a live album in an Austin bar. This version of Foley–wearier, drunker, sadder–is contrasted with his relationship with Rosen. The two met in an artist community years earlier; Sybil was Foley’s muse, the inspiration behind his music and the one who encouraged him to move to Austin and become a singer. Of course, the relationship would be torn asunder by Blaze’s constant touring and drinking, but the film still revolves around watching one person bring forth the artistic qualities of the other.
Blaze has a lot going for it, but the scenes between Dickey and Shawkat, the ones where love is producing creative inspiration, are the highlights. These scenes feel very personal for Hawke–he’s clearly had people who romantically inspired his craft in the past–and you can see his heart reflected in these scenes. That Dickey and Shawkat have incredible chemistry doesn’t hurt either; they fully embody these characters, understanding how they influenced, inspired, and utterly infuriated one another. They’re two of the most consistent and mesmerizing performances this year.
Blaze only falters, ever so slightly, in the second hour of the film. Here, Hawke’s use of montage begins to wear thin and starts to feel like a crutch. For the first hour, it’s fine, but later, when we’re watching happier moments set to sad Foley music, it starts to feel a little too much like a music video. For a movie with so much heart, this creates a distancing effect that pulls the viewer out of the film.
It’s a minor complaint about a film that does so much right. Hawke’s understanding of the Austin creative scene and his gift with performers was easy to predict, given his track record. However, what sticks with me most from Blaze is the haunting imagery. The film is visually striking, whether it’s Foley bathed in red against a flag during his final show or the heart-shattering image of a dying father hearing his children sing together. Clearly, Hawke has translated the emotions he feels when he listens to Foley’s music into something cinematic and beautiful while managing to avoid genre cliches. What more could you want from a biopic?