If you are looking for a break from movies about superheroes, giant sharks, and superheroes (did I mention superheroes?), you might seek out Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s requiem for the great blues-country-western singer and song-writer Michael David Fuller. Fuller, after abandoning the clunky alias Deputy Dog, came up with the persona Blaze Foley, which has a better ring to it, and more appropriately reflects his short, brilliant, and tortured life.
Blaze could easily be the sort of film about a musician that slips into cliché. There’s alcohol, drugs, women, fighting, and premature death, but Hawke manages to avoid a shopworn feel by plotting the film along three separate courses. He weaves together some of the key events of Blaze’s life with interviews from those who knew him, as well the final show Blaze performed before his death.
In addition to the non-linear narrative, the usual ‘rise to stardom’ that is so typical for a movie about a musician is absent in Blaze. No one doubts Blaze’s gifts and many in the film pay homage to his genius, but the wealthiest Blaze gets is to be able to afford a nice hotel room in New York (and that may have been covered by record producers).
For most of the movie, Blaze is penniless, hocking his guitar, hitching rides, living in buildings that ought to be condemned, singing in bars with ten patrons and no coasters. It’s a tale similar to that of Robert Johnson’s and Hank Williams’s—lost in the mists of the South and heart-break—yet certainly less well known to the public.
The film is based in part on the memoirs of Sybil Rosen, his one-time wife and almost definite muse. To use a guitar metaphor, the film begins with a bit of an awkward twang, but when Rosen makes her appearance (played by Alia Shawkat) Blaze finds its rhythm and blossoms into a soulful, if bittersweet and ultimately tragic, ballad.
Blaze is played by Ben Dickey, himself a blues and country singer, who powers the film with his bravura performance. Dickey’s Blaze Foley is a mumbling, stumbling, rambling, bleary-eyed, bearded doomed man. One of Blaze’s friends notes that to become a dedicated musician you must give up friends, family, even happiness. That is, in order to make your music live, a piece of you must die, and we get the sense Blaze is the epitome of this maxim from the moment we meet him.
True, he was stricken with polio at an early age and had a permanent limp because of the disease, but the infirmity is also a constant reminder of the sacrifice he made to create great music.
Some may make the claim Blaze is a form of poverty porn. That is, the filmmakers might be sneering at a southern culture that can’t seem to rise above blight and addiction, and Blaze is the walking (shuffling) epitome of the honky-tonk condition. I would side against this assessment, for it’s evident Ethan Hawke, who co-wrote the film with Sybil Rosen, truly loves and admires his subject. And to show that affinity they won’t varnish the life Blaze lead. They are sneering at no one, merely presenting a tableau and attempting to understand what drove a man to be at once divine and destructive.
The film’s mise en scene is bleak, as it ought to be, punctuated with some nice moments of slow motion (especially the wedding sequence) and seamless transition between the three narrative threads.
Ethan Hawke is of course known for his long and prestigious acting career, and to date there have been a few other stints as a writer and director, but Blaze is his fullest and most notable effort behind the camera. The movie falls into what most would define as the independent category of filmmaking, but whether Hawke aspires to be a studio director or continue along the lines of Blaze, there is clearly a strong talent at work, and it will be interesting to see what project he selects next.
So if the megaplex has got you down, and you can find an art house cinema near you, it would be worth your while to see Blaze, a Sundance Film Festival selection, and a profound achievement in filmmaking.
Running Time: 128 minutes
Cast: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton, Josh Hamilton, Richard Linklater, Alynda Segarra, Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Kris Kristofferson.
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Written by: Ethan Hawke & Sybil Rosen
BLAST RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 4 STARS