Film Review – Blaze
“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” says the etching around the body of the guitar owned by late singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, an enigmatic, sometimes infuriating, often obstinate figure in the Texas music world of the 1980s, when country was becoming cool and Saturday night fevers were broken in the juke joints of Pasadena and Austin and Stillwater.
In Ethan Hawke’s Blaze, his titular character was anything but a rhinestone cowboy: a poet as hypersensitive to the sparks of life emanating from the trees and campfires and pool halls he haunted as to the distractions of regret, lust, or self-doubt. In his acting debut, musician and sometime chef Ben Dickey assumes the awesome task of proving such a cult figure, who never achieved a level of fame to match his talent, is worthy of such celluloid remembrance. Whether it is easier for the viewer to watch the story of an cult singer-songwriter so abruptly ended (Foley was shot and killed at age 39 on February 1, 1989) rather than a recount of landmark events of a superstar’s timeline is depends on the viewer. For Hawke and Dickey, they get to create what Foley most wanted and predicted would come in time: his own legend.
Indeed, as Hawke and Sybil Rosen adapted her memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree, there is a potency in the halcyon early days of her relationship with Foley, tucked away together in the womb of a friend’s tree house in Georgia. When they first meet, she is rehearsing a monologue about preferring to love an unfortunate man over a fortunate one, and Blaze’s flaws are repeatedly forgiven and reframed due to his unflappable charisma and promise. Alia Shawkat is wonderful as the onscreen Sybil, nicknamed “Little Onion,” and rather than embody the stereotype of the long-suffering wife, she is the muse who refuses to stay in the paradise that nurtured Foley’s creative foundation. When they leave the tree house and travel to Austin for work, it is Blaze who wants to stay within that bubble – even recreate it on stage – and doesn’t fare well when the audience punctures that dream and talks back.
Preferring to end up a legend over a star, Blaze is certainly cognizant of the construction of a stage persona, tempering his performance insecurities with alcohol and alternating between an angry drunk and recalcitrant miscreant. When Dickey releases Foley’s rage, the otherwise gentle giant turns into a mad dog, hurling spittle and expletives at the owner of a recording studio or lashing out at a Chicago blues crowd who just want him to shut up and sing instead of listening to his frustrations. When he hits the road with pal and collaborator Townes Van Zant (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), the external stimuli that feed his songs – cigarette smoke on a porch on a rainy day, snow cones at a corner store, the crunch of gravel on a country road – inevitably stretch the distance between Sybil and him even further due to stress and temptation.
“You really should know who Blaze Foley is,” Townes chides a radio deejay at the start of the film, and Hawke structures the path of Blaze’s last decade as a series of flashbacks, some by him as his songs take shape, others by Townes or Zee in conversation. At times, when Townes is really cooking in his Blaze stories, Zee watches him incredulously as the pile of bull increases. To an extent, the friends are taking the piss out of the interviewer, but they also remain deeply committed to Foley’s memory and the ways he stood out, even if the right people in powerful positions weren’t around to invest or exploit him.
The question that remained at the front of my mind, as the friends wove tales and the detractors threw up their hands in disgust and hearts broke for a song, was whether Blaze Foley was the “unfortunate man” that Sybil had yearned for out of a sense of ingrained fatalism, considering his relationship with his father (played by the great Kris Kristofferson in a brief but heartbreaking scene) and recognition of their shared flaws, or did he possess more agency over his shortcomings and fate?