Blaze has the look of a Coen brother’s film, the philosophical bent of a Richard Linklater film, the soul of American roots music and a pumping heart from writer, director Ethan Hawke. His obvious love, empathy, and respect for the movie’s subject, Blaze Foley fills this rare biopic that celebrates a little-known person without lionizing him. Many of us have never heard the name Blaze Foley. He was a struggling singer-songwriter who had a brief life and obtained only a moderate level of conventional success in the 1980’s. Hawke gives us reason to want to know more.
We vacillate through three periods of time in Foley’s life, each era fused with the connective tissues of Blaze’s pivotal life moments, just like our minds do with our own. For example, the story will be in present time and when he notices the way a woman smokes a cigarette it will take him back to a memory when his life’s love, Sybil Rosen smoked in a similar way.
Michael David Fuller renamed himself, Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey), after he took a vow of poverty, wanting to completely remove himself from the commercial world. He lived on the edge of an artist compound, privately in a treehouse with his love, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). Sybil was not only his muse but also his main encourager and supporter. She watched as the quality and depth of his music grew and knew when it was time for him to share it with other people. She also knew that he’d have to travel for it to be heard. They went to Austin and then Chicago trying to find the break that Blaze needed to step up to the next level.
He gets offered his break, by a cowboy Greek Chorus played with hilarity by Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Zahn. Maybe he couldn’t handle the pressure, maybe he couldn’t control his addictions or maybe he really just didn’t care but whatever the reason, he partied this chance away and never caught his footing again.
Ben Dickey is not an actor. He is a musician, and his southern speaking style and comfort with the music and his instrument make his performance so natural, you can forget that this is a biopic and not a documentary. Dickey is well matched with Alia Shawkat as his lover, Sybil Rosen. Shawkat is a seasoned actress and one can almost feel her pulling Ben along with her, just like new love. They’re connection works. The portrayal of the tender and intimate moments of young lovers is as heartwarming as the scenes of Blaze’s moments of self-destruction are heartbreaking. Hawke consciously chose to hire musicians, Charlie Sexton plays musician Townes Van Zandt and Alynda Segarra from Hurray for the Riff Raff plays Blazes’s sister.
This film is a slow long chat on a hot Southern porch with a group of people you enjoy. You know, the ones who are great storytellers, make you laugh, can think deeply but who also like to dance. Take the time to let this movie roll through you and you’ll be able to say that you knew Blaze Foley.
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Director: Ethan Hawke
Writer: Ethan Hawke and Sybil Rosen
Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton, Josh Hamilton
Runtime: 127 minutes
Release date: Staggered, Houston opening August 24, 2018
MPAA Rating: R