The chief achievement of Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s impassioned and uncompromising study of musicians on the margins, is that the film’s subjects, were they alive, wouldn’t scoff at it. Like Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, the late Texas singer-songwriters it honors, Blaze is high-proof liquor in a near-beer world, a drink that’ll burn some going down — and knock the unsympathetic right out. It proudly, defiantly ain’t for everybody, and Hawke, in the spirit of a Van Zandt live album, ain’t afraid to follow a dirge with a dirge. His film operates from the assumption that viewers not only need no introduction to Van Zandt, the long, lean singing poet played with savvy intensity by musician Charlie Sexton; Blaze takes it as a given that its viewers only speak Van Zandt’s name with a hushed awe, and it doesn’t make much effort to bring newbies aboard.
Sexton’s Van Zandt is on hand at first as a character witness to Foley, a songwriter of extraordinary insight and tenderness — and extraordinary self-destructive tendencies. Foley, played by Ben Dickey, who does his own memorable singing and picking, only sporadically recorded his songs before his death in 1989 at the age of 39. He’s best known for his heartsick beauty “If I Could Only Fly” (not to be confused with Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly”), recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on a duet LP in 1987. In 1986, performing it on TV, Haggard quoted his friend Lewis Talley as calling it “the best damn song I’ve heard in 15 years.” (Long after Foley’s death, Haggard revisited the song on the excellent album he named for it, 2000’s If I Could Only Fly.) But the endorsements of the giants didn’t much help Foley, at least not the way that Haggard and Nelson’s hit cover of “Pancho and Lefty” helped Van Zandt. It is to Hawke’s credit that he has invested what clout he has gathered in his industry into this study of an artist who never gathered much clout at all — and that the resulting film has the warm, weary rhythms of Foley’s own songs.
Hawke has framed the film as a eulogy, a romance and a command performance. At a radio station interview after Foley’s death, Sexton’s Van Zandt tells Foley stories and plays the searing tribute “Blaze’s Blues.” This is intercut with scenes from Foley’s life, most notably lively, lovely glimpses of the months he lived in an off-the-grid cabin with actress-writer Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). Threading all this together is Foley’s final performance, to an indifferent crowd at an Austin club on the night of his death. (Time gets fractured, but you know where you are in Foley’s story via the scraggliness of his beard.) Hawke wrote the screenplay with Rosen, and the pair based it on Rosen’s lyric but clear-eyed memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. The film’s center is the rustic chrysalis of that time, these young lovers in their private world, nurturing and discovering each other, growing into themselves. Hawke and his crew superbly evoke the rhythms of a life ruled by weather, the cycles of nature and the searching pluck of the songwriter’s guitar. Dickey’s Foley and Shawkat’s Rosen seem fully, breathlessly lost in each other.
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Eventually, Rosen nudges Foley and his songs out into the world. First stop is Austin, where she gets a diner job, he tries ginning up the courage to sing at open mics, and soon everything falls apart. Turn on country radio today, and you’ll hear songs about drinking as a carefree weekend treat, a holiday without leaving town, often with specific liquors endorsed by brand name. For Foley, drinking was what it used to be in country songs, an escape as deadening as the problems it might help you forget. Soon, rather than really getting anyplace, Foley has crashed into the bottle, staying out all night, sleeping around on small tours, only able to explain himself to Rosen in pained songs and poetic postcards. This material, too, gets handled with uncommon tenderness, and Blaze’s strongest moments, other than the musical performances, might be its sober treatment of the breakup. Rosen and Foley grow and drift apart but never turn on each other and never stop loving each other.
Less compelling but unavoidable are the scenes of Foley in his cups, not getting his songs across at important gigs, sometimes seeming to believe, with the goading of Van Zandt, that living as a brilliant failure is itself an act of artistic creation. Dickey’s performance is pained and detailed, capturing an artist willing himself from promising newcomer to legend despite the world’s indifference; the younger Foley’s goofy sweetness in his bower with Rosen echoes in the grown-up Foley’s boozy rants about Reaganism.
Like the songwriters who fascinate him, Hawke is committed to eschewing cliché, to emotional truth and to refusing to pander. He also admirably resists indulging in the myth that drunken obscurity is romantic. His film’s third major thread concerns that final Foley performance, a rambling but marvelous set from a sensitive poet who has also become a mean drunk not above haranguing the barflies. In an inspired touch, Hawke sometimes will track the club’s employees going about their own lives as Foley sings, taking a break or sneaking out for a smoke, maybe struck by a stray lyric but much too busy to listen closely, to get caught up in the poetry.
Songwriters of the Foley/Van Zandt breed demand more from an audience than any jukebox hit. Their art comes alive through the investment of your attention, trust and time, your willingness to surrender to the wistful or the miserable in order to appreciate the fineness of its articulation. Blaze suggests with some humility that it’s no failure of discernment that some people who heard Foley sing didn’t truly hear him. His art was delicate and demanding, avowedly not for everyone, given its power by its own cussed integrity. The same goes for Hawke’s film.