Blaze, directed by Ethan Hawke, doesn’t attempt to throw its arms around the entirety of a man’s life, because such a thing is impossible and always results in thin storytelling, diluted by time. Instead, like a kid catching a firefly between his hands, the movie closes in on the essence of a man—in its most highly condensed form—and projects it through small moments, relationships and hearsay. The man in question is Blaze Foley, a little-known folk singer from Texas for whom fame and fortune was always asking too much.
Despite its prudent approach, the movie doesn’t put its best foot forward. For some time, it sports the thick, all too familiar outline of a biopic, in that it’s hopelessly in love with its subject and comes off as needy in its attempts to elicit the audience’s love, as well. However, it doesn’t take long for the story to shed its naïve notions of characterization and present Blaze as more than a novelty.
“…Blaze sets out on the road with an arsenal of songs and attempts to catch the greased pig of success.”
This occurs once Blaze, part good ol’ boy and part bohemian, abandons the heaven on earth that is living with his girlfriend, Rosen (Alia Shawkat), in an isolated cabin, deep into the process of being reclaimed by the woods around it. After Rosen instills the required amount of confidence in Blaze, he sets out on the road with an arsenal of songs and attempts to catch the greased pig of success. Not only does this create tension between his two loves—that of Rosen and that of the song—but the day to day living of the road chips away at Blaze’s sanity, as it does with so many. Even when it looks like he might be able to make a record deal with an up-and-coming country label, he can’t quite bring himself to bridge the dark chasm between pen and paper.
As far as romantic laments of starving artists go, Blaze is one of the better ones. Like the songs themselves, the movie isn’t putting on airs. It’s bare, disjointed and occasionally out of tune, but only because it values honesty and isn’t looking to stir up any illusions. Folk music—and, by extension, the movie—is trying to find the truth, not distract from it. The same can’t be said for much of the music or movies of today, which seem to be doing card tricks with their left hand and rummaging through your pockets with their right. Blaze is played by Ben Dickey, a musician and first-time actor, who does a fine job of displaying charisma and the frustration that comes with having a triple-helping of talent but knowing what to do with it.
“…when two exponentially talented bums are propping each other up, we see both the self-destructive nature of great artists and the communal nature of music…”
Surrounding Dickey and Shawkat, the cast is stacked with an assortment of recognizable faces from the realms of film and music. Kris Kristofferson, Sam Rockwell, Richard Linklater and even Hawke himself, in a faceless role, lend a hand to the story. One of the most notable characters in the film is Townes Van Zandt, the legendary Texas musician and, if I do say so myself, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He’s played by Charlie Sexton, a musician with few acting credits, most notable for being Bob Dylan’s guitarist for the last twenty years. Anyone who’s ever watched an interview with Townes or listened to him talk between songs will notice how well Sexton picked up on his cadences (the script even has him using actual quotes). Townes’ role in Blaze’s story is one of a mentor, a friend and, in some ways, a carrot at the end of a stick. After Townes finishes playing his song, Marie, in an empty dining hall, Blaze’s face crumples and he hides himself in his palm, overcome with reverence and envy. The scene reminded me of the story about Brian Wilson hearing Strawberry Fields Forever on his car radio, pulling over to the side of the road and breaking down in tears.
But the best scene in Blaze involves Townes performing his most famous song, Pancho and Lefty. He’s so stoned that he loses his way in-between verses and stalls into playing the same notes over and over again. Out of the side of the frame, Blaze leans in—just as stoned—and picks up where Townes left off. Before long, Townes is able to find his way back to the song. In this moment, when two exponentially talented bums are propping each other up, we see both the self-destructive nature of great artists and the communal nature of music that can’t be found anywhere else. You can keep watching the rest of the movie, but everything it’s trying to say is perfectly articulated in that one moment.
Blaze (2018) Directed by Ethan Hawke. Written by Ethan Hawke and Sybil Rosen. Starring Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton, Josh Hamilton, Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater, Kris Kristofferson, Wyatt Russell, David Kallaway, Sybil Rosen and Ritchie Montgomery.
8 out of 10