Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” is a Texas-sized story with a southern hearted tone. It’s easy to like and full of notable and simplified deep-south wisdom like that of “Rain doesn’t try and fall, it just falls," it also tells these elongated jokes that are simplistically amusing. Feeling southern rooted in more ways than one, it’s the kind of tale meant for audiences in favor of both that blues/folk/country style music and those who find themselves head over heels for the lone star state. As a Lonestar native myself, I can’t help but admit that my heritage belongs to the Banner state, but my soul has belonged to the northern and western ways of life for a good while now. That’s not to say this movie is meant for prideful Texans only though, “Blaze” has more to it than it's Texas foreground.
It’s a spiritual chronology through one-man’s life, one that has a lot of relatability within it, as well as some gaping holes that are soaked with wasted potential. Inspired from his work in “Born to be Blue,” the Oscar-nominated actor/writer/director/producer displays his affinity for the folk-tale music legend of Blaze Foley (Ben Dickie). It’s not a biographical journey through his life as much as it is a cinematic translation of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) music. Providing a soul-filled glance at how his art developed through his life, how his interactions, affairs, romances, and journey’s through his wistful life affected his music.
If you’ve never heard of Blazy Foley (Ben Dickie), then you’ll feel the same confusion I did in understanding what made this man the talk of East Texas. He was something of a contemporary of musicians, having a reminiscent flair for country music legends like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who recorded one of his songs, bet you didn’t know that. I bet you were also unaware of his intimate friendship with country legend Townes Van Zandt, infamous for his heartbreakingly despairing works of songwriting. Telling stories that are sure to crack the coldest of hearts, and Foley’s (Ben Dickie) is something of the same breed.
The story condenses itself into three major storylines, a wise movie from veteran filmmaker Ethan Hawke, choosing to avoid the typical bumps and back roads of the traditional biopic. Each of these three narratives takes place from separate times in Foley’s (Ben Dickie) life. Opening with a radio interview between Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and his long-time friend and collaborator; Zee (Josh Hamilton; whose year of indie prominence is worth noting). The two gentlemen reminisce on their times with Foley (Ben Dickie), telling stories of someone who was a legend to one of them, and a real-life friend to another. It’s a duality of storytelling that could’ve been focused more upon, but I’ll get into that later, as the story flashes back to his final moments. His last performance in a podunk bar in the middle of a nowhere town. He’s drunker, sadder, and poetically philosophical throughout his final 24 track recording session. The last echoes of a folk-hero.
In the midst of that final outing, we are given an anchoring glance through his life, especially his once in a lifetime kind of love with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), a young Jewish girl he met inside of floundering artistic community. She became his muse. He became her anchor. Each of them in desperate need of one another’s companionship, but both needed to learn how to love each other from afar. It’s one of the year’s best romances, one that eclipses the stereotypical standards of the genre; perhaps it's the reality breathed into it from Hawke.
His visuals are predominantly responsible for that, painting these grungy but sunset colored manners that echoes the heart of small-town Texas, despite the majority of the story being filmed in Louisiana. The use of colors is also something worth noting, as Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens fashion some of the year’s most striking silhouettes. From Foley’s (Ben Dickie) portrait imagery to the heart-wrenching imagery of a dying father hearing his children sing, maybe for the last time. All of it echoes a heart that cannot be matched, but it begins to derail from its prominence the further it goes on.
Forgetting to match the story with technical brilliance, Hawke lets the music overstay its welcome. The use of montages borders between the lines of cinematic adaptation and an over-long music video, manifesting an aloofness to the emotion buried beneath the happy nostalgic trails of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) life. It’s not just that protracted walk through the highlights of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) past that thwart the film’s prominence. It's the negligence for potential.
Hawke sets the foundation for more magnificent storytelling points, assembling a groundwork that dissects the themes of remembrance, an artist’s conflict, and even the dissection of small-town America. He sees these recipes for success, he also begins to let them breathe, but he plays the film safe. When Foley’s (Ben Dickie) music becomes the focus of our storyline, the film succeeds, allowing the most outright critics of country music to fall in love with the soft-acoustic rhythms of this pseudo-musical romantic biopic, but “Blaze” could have become so much more than that, placing itself in the forefront for best indie-pic of the year.
Hawke’s hesitance becomes a noticeable gap in quality, Ben Dickie is the complete opposite of that notion, standing outright and head and shoulders above everyone else. He’s not only the star of this film but the commanding voice behind the film’s best aspects. He’s a musician in real life, and it shows throughout his time as Blaze (Ben Dickie). Being able to perform the wistful and songbird exceptionality of the musical excellence were given witness to. He describes the struggle being in the matching of Foley’s (Ben Dickie) pitches and tones with the chords. He along with co-star Alia Shawkat provide performances that are lived-in, breathing a sense of long-grated experience to them at every point and time.
It’s a talented piece of work, put together through a multitude of proficient filmmaking from both Hawke’s visual acuity and his direction of both his breakout star and young up and comer. It’s a cohesive body of work that accomplishes its task in bringing more eyes to the forgotten legacy of Blaze Foley. It’s much like the line delivered by Ben Dickie when asked if he want’s to be a star he replies, “I don’t want’st to be a star, I want’st to be a legend. Stars shine bright, but they, eventually, go dark. Legends last forever.”
“Blaze” is a star of a movie, shining bright and flying high, eventually fading into darkness though, becoming a film that missed it's potential by a noticeable margin, like that of it's subject. Remaining one of Hawke’s best outings as a filmmaker thus far and a prominent introduction to the star quality of Ben Dickie, but nowhere near as great as it could’ve been.