Country singer Blaze Foley is not a well-known figure. Only a handful of devotees keep his legacy alive. Ethan Hawke is one of those and with his new film Blaze, now as a director, he attempts to cement the musician in country history.
Played by first-time actor Ben Dickey, Foley was a madman, drunk, poet and lover. The film opens with two scenes showing the dichotomy that he possessed. The first features Foley on the drums in the studio being belligerent as can be. This is immediately contrasted by a scene of Foley sitting on a porch, playing a haunting song called "Clay Pigeons." In these two scenes, so much of the man is captured.
Hawke commits to avoiding the troupes of a musician biopic. He is telling the short life of an artist who never caught fame so he wisely fills the movie with revealing moments rather than the typical rise, and fall narrative. He often lets Foley's music speak in the place of dialogue, a wise choice that allows audiences to become familiar with his rather amazing music.
At the center of the film is Dickey. It is incredibly hard to believe this is his first film. Dickey brings Foley to life as a man of contradictions. He was a drunk who could swing from sweet to sour, from high to low. He is also a man who loved a woman. That woman was Sybil Rosen, played wonderfully by Alia Shawkat. They meet at a arts retreat and soon spend time telling each other stories and making love. Hawke captures their intimate love in unfussy ways. He represents their relationship in a nuanced way, trusting the two actors to bring so much to the table. They do and Blaze is often a moving film as a result.
While the love of Foley and Sybil fuels his songwriting, his demons often get in the way. Blaze is a tragic tale but one that also feels warm. This is due to Hawke's assured approach and the wonderful performances throughout. Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt is a standout. The film has a lyrical quality that keeps away comparisons from other films of this type. Hawke is having a great year with First Reformed and now this gem.