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Right from the start, Blaze reassures you it’s OK if you have never heard of its subject, the late country singer Blaze Foley. In an early scene, Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), a much more famous singer, mentions him in a radio interview. Even the DJ doesn’t know his name. After snarkily shaming the host for his ignorance, Townes proceeds to tell Blaze’s broken and beautiful tale.
On the surface, Blaze follows the same path as the many musician biopics that have come before. It traces its great singer’s rise, fall, and untimely death, and it reveals the origins of his most well-known songs. But nothing about Blaze feels conventional. Director Ethan Hawke, in his best work yet behind the camera, has crafted a unique American myth that gently coaxes you into a world of backwoods country bars, despairing artists, and the poor souls who put their faith in them.
As played by musician and first-time actor Ben Dickey, Blaze is a gentle giant, a self-destructive alcoholic, and a trickster whose soft eyes insists he only wants trouble for himself, and he is deeply sorry, ma’am, if he gets some of that trouble on you. When he meets Sybil (Alia Shawkat), a young actress, he settles down in a house in the woods and thinks he has found paradise. There is running water but no heat, except for that which they can provide each other. She acts in a local theater collective. He strums his guitar by the fire, writing songs. But nothing so perfect can last, and when she suggests they move to Austin so he can start his career in earnest, we know that their well-intentioned stab at success will be their eventual downfall.
For an actor-turned-director, Hawke has a terrific eye and, along with cinematographer Steve Cosens, makes Blaze shine with beauty. Although it takes place in the 1980s, the film has a timeless feel, and every shot looks like a half-torn, sepia-toned photo found in an old box of junk. Blaze’s story is set in a series of small Texas towns that haven’t changed much in decades. He lives next to a meat market and plays shows in gas stations. More than Foley himself, these details are what linger in the mind after Blaze has unfolded. Coming in at a languid 127 minutes, Hawke occasionally loses sight of the story, but his genuine curiosity in Blaze’s ramshackle world and its inhabitants more than makes up for it.
The film is fascinated in its faces, like the aging waitress at the Austin Outhouse, where Blaze played one of his most famous shows. The camera finds her going outside for a cigarette break during one of Blaze’s better songs, and, as we watch her quietly smoke, the music from inside the club imprints upon her. Some music biopics would show throngs of fans screaming the musician’s name. Blaze only shows the lines on a cocktail waitress’ face, and somehow it matters more.
It’s a portrait of a tragic artist who decides, consciously or not, that it’s better to burn out than to fade away, and with its intimate scope, we feel the full weight of that choice. Sybil asks him early on if he wants to be famous, and he says no. “I want to be a legend,” he replies, “because legends last forever.” It’s hard to imagine more ominous words. With his beautiful film, Hawke has elevated Foley into the legend that he always wanted to be, with a more careful eye on the cost of that decision than most films of its kind. For the tiring musician biopic genre, it blazes a new path forward.
Blaze opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.