'Blaze': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Ben Dickey makes an affecting acting debut in a deeply felt portrait.

Ethan Hawke's biopic introduces an underexposed Texas songwriter beloved by stars like Townes Van Zandt.

A belated but heartfelt eulogy for a songwriter who didn't live long enough to drink himself to death like his most famous friend, Ethan Hawke's Blaze will be the first introduction most viewers have to Blaze Foley. A contemporary of Willie Nelson and the other "Outlaw" country artists, Foley was troublesome even by their standard — belligerent and (at least according to the film) frequently kicked out of clubs for performing drunk. Hawke goes in search of his tender side and finds it in a big way, thanks in large part to a charismatic lead performance by musician Ben Dickey, a first-timer who doesn't look it.

Merle Haggard, John Prine, Lyle Lovett and others have recorded Foley's songs, and Lucinda Williams wrote a great one about him. But when he died of a gunshot wound in 1989, you wouldn't have been able to find any of his music in stores. Misfortune followed his recording projects, and it's only thanks to die-hard supporters that his old LPs and tapes ever became posthumous reissues.

But though Hawke necessarily touches on Foley's career, such as it was, that's not his film's focus. Rather, he wants to get at the man himself, and does that from three angles. There's the last concert Foley ever gave, a desultory affair in an Austin dive where he recorded as many songs as he could fit on the tapes he brought; there's a staged radio interview in which Foley's good friend Townes Van Zandt tells his DJ interlocutor lies that point toward the truth about him; and there's the story of young Blaze's relationship with Sybil Rosen, whose memoir is the basis for the film. (Rosen co-wrote the screenplay with Hawke.)

Dickey is a bear of a man (the real Blaze, born Michael David Fuller, was very tall, but about half the girth of Dickey), but Hawke makes him unthreatening very quickly. In one of Blaze's first interactions with Rosen (played beautifully by Alia Shawkat), the two wind up hiding together in a darkened closet, with only a cigarette lighter between them. Only visible to each other as faces, they whisper leading up to their first kiss. Sybil is skittish, but Blaze reassures her that "all wild things are shy."

Soon they're a couple, living for free in a shack in the woods. We don't need to be told this is Eden, where they do little but appreciate each other's company. But in the film's other two strands, intercut with this one, we've already been assured of Eden's end. As the two decide to leave their treehouse, get married, and go in search of a career for Foley, their story is loving but increasingly sad.

In the episode set after his death, Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) is giving a radio interview, ostensibly to promote his record No Deeper Blue. That would put this around five years after Foley's death, and Van Zandt is ready to get the myth-making machinery moving. He claims to have dug up Foley's corpse to get something out of his jacket pocket; he claims the two saw Jesus together. And in telling that most universal of music-lover lie — "I was at that show" — he purports to describe the brilliance of the Austin Outhouse gig we're seeing in scenes alternating with this one. The harmonica player sitting beside Van Zandt in the radio booth (a composite character called Zee, played by Josh Hamilton) actually was there, and chafes at Townes' brazenness.

Sexton, a Texas guitarist who started off as a teenage rock heartthrob and went on to a long tenure in Bob Dylan's band, looks little like Townes Van Zandt and doesn't sound much like him either. But he performs with enough conviction to reinvent the legendary, doomed troubadour on the spot. The tales he tells, much like the anecdotes older musicians tell about him now that he's gone, enlarge both the subject and the narrator, and in this case, propose that Foley was Van Zandt's equal. That's arguable, to say the least. But in the many flashbacks where the two men swap songs, drink and tell each other stories, the kinship between them goes deeper than backstage camaraderie.

There are many ways of being an artist, but the self-destructive path embodied by Van Zandt and Foley certainly has a hold on our collective imagination. As the former puts it in his interview, when he started writing songs and performing them, he realized "I can really do this. But it means blowing everything off." When Foley and Van Zandt make a terrible scene at a concert that should have been Foley's commercial breakthrough and then run up booze bills high enough to bankrupt the record label three cowboy moneymen started in order to promote him — those dudes are played, amusingly, by Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, and Richard Linklater — Van Zandt mocks their loss, saying that for the songwriters, this is all "research."

Ultimately, though, Blaze is more affecting than most other live-hard/die-ugly music biopics. Its slant toward the singer's relationship with Rosen is used to inform our understanding of his songs (which Dickey performs himself, ably), helping us see their beauty even when he performs them — in between long, sometimes entertaining philosophical monologues — for a crowd of a half-dozen barflies who'd rather be doing something else. Foley's cult may never grow as big as his most ardent fans would like. But Hawke and Rosen and Dickey have given the man something better than posthumous record sales.

Production company: Under the Influence
Cast: Benjamin Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton
Director: Ethan Hawke
Screenwriters: Ethan Hawke, Sybil Rosen
Producers: Jake Seal, Ethan Hawke, John Sloss, Ryan Hawke
Executive producers: Louis Black, Sandy Boone, Gurpreet Chandhoke, Stephen Shea
Director of photography: Steve Cosens
Production designer: Thomas Hayek
Costume designer: Lee Kyle
Editor: Jason Gourson
Composers: Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt
Casting director: Ryan Glorioso
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Cinetic

128 minutes