Ethan Hawke’s biopic, “Blaze,” is a brutally honest portrait of the rarely recognized musician Blaze Foley.
Set in Austin, Texas during the Texas Outlaw Music Movement of the 1970s, the film depicts the life of Foley (Ben Dickey), a washed-up, elusive songwriter whose emotional and psychological instability plants a few roadblocks in his path to songwriting success. Foley attempts to navigate his unsteady musical career alongside his girlfriend-turned-wife, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), and his close friends, including musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton).
The film captures the complicated love affair between Foley and Rosen, his struggle to maintain mental clarity and the legacy of his songwriting career.
“Blaze” is based on Rosen’s memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” which describes her life living in a shanty in the forests of Georgia with Foley. Rosen’s firsthand experiences provide a highly intimate look at the unusual lives she and Foley led.
As a biopic, “Blaze” is a success because it takes audiences inside Foley’s chaotic life with brazen and unflinching transparency. The film opens with Foley inside a recording studio, drunkenly teetering on a drum kit stool while record label managers loudly curse and throw their hands up in frustration.
From the onset, Foley is illustrated as a drunken, irresponsible man whose inherent carelessness ultimately hinders his path to success.
Exceptional acting is the film’s greatest asset. Dickey dons Foley’s demeanor with impressive ease, mastering a seamless balance between unrestrained anger and irritating nonchalance. It’s no surprise Foley’s role won him the Special Jury Award in Achievement for Acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Shawkat delicately assumes Rosen’s artistic, lofty-mindedness, digesting Foley’s philosophical, drunken soliloquies with marked admiration. Sexton gives a spot-on performance as Zandt, perfectly capturing the laidback, nostalgic attitude of someone within the industry; his southern drawl dripping out of his mouth like sweet sorghum — thick and slow.
“Blaze” also thrives off the natural, poignant dialogue that ricochets between its characters. Hawke and Rosen’s screenwriting skills are expressed through Rosen and Foley’s interactions at the beginning of their relationship. The camera focuses in on them in a darkened room with a flickering candle casting a soft yellow glow on both their faces as they exchange casual words of newfound familiarity. The flame captures the love that begins to kindle between them and provides a lovely connection to the film’s title and its protagonist’s namesake.
Aside from the cinematography and acting, the audience is left with Foley’s crumbling ambition and unwieldy pride, which lands him almost — quite literally — in the gutter. But despite the alluring peculiarity of Foley’s life, his road trip through the U.S. playing sets at local bars doesn’t necessarily evoke the excitement of an action thriller.
“Blaze” slows down as it moves forward, draining viewers’ attention like the liquor in Foley’s hands. While Foley’s life story certainly has some interesting elements, it doesn’t have the hold that Hawke undoubtedly desires. Audiences get a solid understanding of Foley’s songwriting legacy, which includes hits like “If I Could Only Fly” and “Clay Pigeons,” yet its scope and importance are ultimately lost within the main narrative.
Viewers won’t walk away feeling like they’ve seen a cinematic masterpiece, but rather an artful and insightful illustration of a disheveled man whose talent was undermined by his inability to change his ways.
Hawke’s honest portrayal of Foley puts viewers in a tough position, taking audiences through the highs and lows of the man’s life. While the film makes it easy to be irritated by Foley’s lackadaisical attitude and damaging self-pride, it also makes it just as simple to recognize the mental instability at work behind his actions.
Hawke keeps every bit of Foley’s life intact — alcohol-induced rages and all. He even takes viewers to Foley’s final, tragic moments on earth, which seems like a sudden ending for a man whose languorous, heavy voice made his speeches sound like they would last forever.
“Blaze” stays true to its purpose, delivering audiences a rare taste of one of country music’s early pioneers. The film finds its center within its brilliant acting and excellent screenplay, while its intimate cinematography provides a uniquely warm feeling of familiarity. Audience members are given access to real-life moments that echo with authenticity.
Ironically, the only thing weighing down Hawke’s film is the subject itself. While alcoholism and career failure might be the hallmark of a solid biopic, they’re certainly not the attributes of a work of cinematic genius. Perhaps Hawke should have thought about adding more wood to the fire to keep his biopic blazing.
“Blaze” will begin playing Sept. 28 at the Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.).