Ethan Hawke has been nominated for an Oscar four times, twice for writing and twice for acting. This year, he may just add another for his spellbinding performance in Paul Schrader’s gut-wrenching First Reformed. Though not recognized to the same degree, Hawke has also spent his fair share of time behind the camera, from 2001’s ensemble piece Chelsea Walls to the 2014 documentary Seymour: An Introduction. Hawke returns to the helm with his latest film, Blaze, a biopic about Austin-based musician Blaze Foley (nee Mike Fuller).
Blaze combines a lot of what Hawke (who makes a small cameo in the film) loves, including Texas, music and Richard Linklater. With an indulgent 127 minute runtime, the film is based on the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze written by Foley’s long-time partner Sybil Rosen about their time together as he honed his songwriting skills and began touring small gigs around the country, navigating the stress of the road, the business of the industry and his own addictions.
Hawke builds the film around a series of extended flashbacks, the whole thing driven by a radio interview (Hawke is the DJ) with Foley’s collaborators and friends, Townes van Sandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), as they recount his life, his songs, his time with Sybil (Alia Shawkat) and his untimely death. Foley comes to life through Ben Dickey’s gentle, vulnerable performance, imbuing the artist with an unassuming energy and a charming drawl that bely the ego and insecurities underneath the surface. This cast of country music outlaws lives off the grid and by their own rules, Foley often waxing philosophical about love and art and how he’d best like to be remembered.
Blaze is a film that takes its time, giving special care to the everyday moments that shaped Foley and letting us get to know this central figure through both quiet interactions with Rosen and more tempestuous on stage and as his career begins to take off. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse, as it’s clear Hawke is Foley’s biggest fan intent on converting all of us, too. The ever-present music, most of which is Foley’s, is beautiful, and Dickey, a musician in his own right, delivers them gorgeously. But the real stakes of the film are in Foley’s resistance to the system and his inability or unwillingness to conform to the music industry’s expectations and norms.
By the time he’s on the road and away from Rosen for long stretches of time, he’s developed quite a drinking habit, becoming belligerent on stage and alienating the very people who are trying to help me break out big (referred to in the credits only as “Oilmen,” get it?). Despite the confidence he channels with each new song, he can’t quite bring himself to fully embrace the mechanics of producing an album and building a following. Though there are sweet moments between Foley and Rosen as their relationship blossoms, the few scenes where tensions and voices rise prove to be the film’s most engaging.
If you’re not terribly familiar with Foley’s life, how it ended is a bit of a reveal in the film (though the fact that it did is not, as Townes and Zee address it early on in their radio interview). Rather than turn this thread of the story into some dark, mysterious unraveling, he introduces the preceding events without much fanfare; really, Foley is just being himself, engaging in a bit of friendly banter and generally trying to make the world around him a better place. That this would ultimately lead to his death is the very definition of tragic, and Dickey processes the scene consistent with the character he’s created throughout the film.
There’s probably a niche of John Prine and Merle Haggard fans who will find in Blaze a sense of familiarity and family; Hawke’s creative team goes all in on the muted colors, macrame accents and hobo-chic western wear, and the soundtrack, in addition to Foley’s work, includes songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Lucinda Williams and Blind Willie McTell (and Def Leppard and Cheap Trick). For these folks, Hawke has crafted an ode to the genre and one if its greatest songwriters who left this world far too soon.
For everyone else, however, Blaze teeters just a bit too close to meandering for comfort. Though afterwards you may be tempted to queue up a Blaze Foley station on Spotify, Hawke’s effort to explore the musician from every angle and give his genre its due ultimately draws out a story that could’ve packed more punch with a bit of tough love in the editing room.