Review: Blaze

by Andrew Parker

A quietly mournful and gently celebratory look at a boisterous, but underrated personality, Ethan Hawke’s biopic Blaze is a humane approach to creating iconography organically and empathetically. For his latest outing behind the camera, director and co-writer Hawke takes a look at an artist that was likely the favourite musician of some of your favourite musicians, although you’d probably never know it. Taking a more restrained approach to musical biopic standards, Hawke’s Blaze is as warm, inviting, and tragic as sitting down among friends over beers and joints to reminisce about someone who is loved and missed on a profound level.

Until his death in 1989 at the young age of 39, singer-songwriter-guitarist Blaze Foley (played here by fellow musician Ben Dickey) was a major figure in the Texas music scene. He never moved millions of records, and his popularity never rose above cult or niche statuses, but those who knew and followed him loved him dearly. Blaze Foley influenced and guided a number of major musical artists, but few people outside of his sphere of influence had even heard of him. A master of self-sabotage who battled alcoholism and unmedicated mental illness issues, Blaze somehow found ways of squandering all the good will he’d earned and never took his talents seriously enough to fully succeed. On some nights, Blaze Foley would perform like a god, but other performances would come across like a rambling, incoherent, petulant, eighteen car pile-up.

Foley’s reputation and legacy as a musical performer was tempestuous and fraught, which is probably why Hawke opens Blaze with a scene where the troubadour fritters away valuable studio time and his potential last chance to cut a record by rantling, boozing, and banging atonally on a snare drum like a buffoon. It’s the only real moment throughout Blaze that makes its central figure seem unhinged, but it’s a bold move to get such preconceived notions many have about Foley out into the open at the start. From there, Hawke, who co-writes with Foley’s former partner and biographer Sybil Rosen (played in the film by Alia Shawkat) delivers a delicately interwoven story that drifts logically and artfully through different periods of Blaze’s life.

Blaze’s closest friends and running mates, Zee (Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) are trying to explain to a clueless radio DJ (Hawke) the influence, charisma, and talent Foley possessed. They’re largely recounting Blaze’s last day on Earth, which included a largely disastrous live show and an incident involving the protection of a close friend that would lead to a fatal altercation. During the performance, Hawke depicts Blaze as someone struggling to move forward with his craft, often getting distracted from playing his music by telling long winded stories about how some of his most meaningful and regrettable songs were created. These stories frequently flash back to Blaze’s once happy life with Sybil, from their early courtship to their perhaps inevitable divorce.

Hawke weaves in and out of the story’s varied settings like a master seamstress operating three needles by hand, simultaneously. Next to his documentary Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke hasn’t made a feature this delicately assured as a writer or director. Love and empathy permeates every intimate frame of Blaze, and the focus is place on naturalism rather than rockstar cliches or pandering. There’s a much flashier and juicier version of Blaze Foley’s life that could be made, but Hawke’s film feels like a memorial crafted by people who put the love they had in their hearts for the long departed songwrite. There’s no grandstanding or convenient plotting here. No one in Blaze ever stops the show to give an impassioned speech. There’s no signifier dialogue designed to draw attention to major life moments, and such signposts come up organically along the way without appearing unsubtle. Unlike most musician based biopics, the creation of Blaze’s songs aren’t depicted as bolts from the blue, but as material that evolved through time and observation. Heck, Hawke even slows things down to let Blaze tell a lengthy story or two without cutting the character off. While everyone involved takes part in telling Blaze’s story, Hawke makes the wise decision of letting the man speak for himself through Dickey’s revelatory performance.

Dickey also boasts exceptional chemistry with Shawkat, and their romance is one of the most painfully realistic and intricate on screen dynamics of the year. Blaze doesn’t have much use for religion, but Sybil (whose real life counterpart has a cameo here as her own mother) comes from a proudly Jewish family. Budding actress Sybil is initially content to spend time with Blaze at their secluded woodland home, but she’d eventually like to move and explore new opportunities and help her husband forward his own career. Blaze fears medicating his mental illness, not so much because he says it would dull his abilities as an artist, but because he fears that Sybil wouldn’t love him if he stopped being true to his underlying nature. The balance between overwhelming love and understandable frustration is given plenty of space by Hawke for his stars to play and experiment with in subtle ways. It probably helps that Hawke is a gifted actor in his own right, and that he understands how to give and produce naturalistic performances, but it also requires a great deal of talent to pull off something this low-key and nuanced. Hawke couldn’t ask for better collaborators in Rosen, Shawkat, and Dickey.

Blaze is a refreshing and welcome respite from the sort of trite and bombastic musician biopics that normally get produced, and that’s not merely because Foley was never much of a household name. It’s because Hawke, Dickey, and everyone else involved are finding ways to make the viewer love Blaze Foley in spite of his obvious faults and flaws. It’s an accepting, relaxed, and warm hearted approach to biography that allows viewers into a world they might not have entered under other circumstances.

Blaze opens at select Cineplex locations in Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver on Friday, December 14, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Blaze:

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