Blaze

Actors starting out in Hollywood should study the career of Ethan Hawke, a man that constantly churns out interesting stuff. Musicians starting out should probably not study the career of country music outlaw Blaze Foley – the subject of this film.

Hawke, making his second film that’s a love letter to a musician (find his documentary Seymour: An Introduction), covers the life of Blaze (played by musician Benjamin Dickey, doing his first film). He’s not the most well-known country/blues singer around, but he was highly influential. Lucinda Williams called him a “beautiful loser” and “genius” (and covered his song “Drunken Angel”). Merle Haggard covered “If I Could Only Fly.” Lyle Lovett did “Election Day” and John Prine, who my wife thinks Blaze sounds so much like, tackled his “Clay Pigeons.”

Willie Nelson has done a few of his songs, and a handful of artists have done songs about Blaze.

The screenplay was co-written by the woman who wrote the book it’s based on — Living in the Woods in a Tree. You see, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) was a Jewish actress that ran into Blaze when he was doing carpentry work on a house she was rehearsing in. They quickly moved in together — into a small cabin a friend let them have rent free. And one of the things that was so wonderful about the first half of the film is how they seemed to love each other so much. It was also listening to his words of encouragement for Sybil, when she’d be nervous or stressed about something. For example, The Doors are my favorite band. Yet I hated the movie, and one of the reasons was that Oliver Stone just showed Jim Morrison, the drunken buffoon. Not the guy with the high IQ, who graduated from UCLA, wrote poetry, or was a good friend. If you’re going to do a biopic, it’s much more interesting to cover all aspects of a person — warts and all. Oliver Stone just went with the warts.

Now, this isn’t a traditional biopic. It’s done in a style that Blaze would be proud of. Sometimes we get scenes of him in a drunken stupor in a recording studio. Other times, in a drunken stupor in a small bar, recording a live album. There are moments he’s drunk on a porch with his friends. Wait…this is sounding like The Doors movie. But, he’s not always drunk. There’s a beautiful set of scenes when Blaze is trying to charm Sybil’s parents, when they’re asking about a possible marriage. Another scene when he’s in the back of a pickup truck with Sybil, talking about wanting to become a legend. Her arms are around his big belly, both with huge smiles on their faces.

There’s a small scene with Kris Kristofferson in a hospital. Blaze sings his dad a few songs, and we realize he didn’t have the best childhood growing up. It might be one of the most heartbreaking scenes you’ll get in a movie all year.

It’s just unfortunate that so much of the film was watching him get drunk, and it got monotonous and boring; but perhaps the fact that I have alcoholics in my family, that just isn’t my idea of entertaining.

The casting of three new record label guys with money was interesting. They were played by Steve Zahn (you know him, just not the name), Sam Rockwell, and Richard Linklater (the director). They spot Blaze’s potential and sign him to a record deal. That doesn’t turn out so well.

It’s great that Hawke used a lot of smaller moments in the flashbacks. It’s so much more interesting, when you’re so used to all the tropes the usual musical biopics go down. It’s one of the reasons John C. Reilly made a parody film (Walk Hard) about them; we had Walk the Line and Ray come out so close together, and they followed such similar story arcs. That being said, it did make me wonder what exactly happened with his marriage. Especially since Sybil does show up at one of his shows when they’re no longer together, and they obviously still care for each other.

Since I knew very little about Blaze, it was a treat to hear his songs. A little less interesting hearing musician Charlie Sexton, playing Blaze’s friend and the more successful Townes Van Zandt. He shares stories with a DJ (Hawke) that also knew little about him.

Many moments felt so authentic; watching him sing in a bar while kids play video games and the bartender is heckling things about “stealing John Prine’s melody.”

Another scene shows Blaze being drunk in a bar and his wife giving him the business.

It’s just a shame that there weren’t more “wow” moments, like watching him perform “Picture Cards Can’t Picture You.”

The film was just a little to low-key for my tastes. All the same things I loved and hated, about Inside Llewyn Davis, could be applied here. Great performances included.

2 ½ stars out of 5