We open up on a recording studio where Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is madly playing the drums and spouting off about Cesar Chavez, on how great a man he is while his friend Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) drunkenly walks around the room flipping cards at the drum-set. The recording engineer behind the glass is trying to get Blaze’s attention, but Blaze refuses to acknowledge his attempts to talk to him. The engineer finally gets Blaze’s attention by yelling that Blaze has been kicked out of every bar south of Virginia and then he, the engineer is Blaze’s last hope to make it in the record business. The engineer comes into the room with a baseball bat and tells Blaze that he is going to sing right now. Blaze tells the engineer that he doesn’t control Blaze and then Blaze starts growling at the engineer. Having enough, the engineer kicks Blaze and his friends out of the studio.
We cut to Blaze and his friends sitting on the front porch of a house. Blaze is playing a guitar while Towns tells a long, terrible joke. We cut to a radio interview with Townes and Z (Josh Hamilton). They talk about his latest album and especially the last song called ‘Blazes’ Blues’ The radio interviewer (Ethan Hawke) asks who Blaze Foley was, and Towns begins to tell the story of Blaze, one of the great singer-songwriters that no one knows. We learn from Townes that Blaze died trying to keep a kid from stealing his dad’s disability check.
We cut to the inside of a building where a woman, Sybil (Alia Shawkat) is practicing a stage role at the top of the stairs. Blaze walks into the building with a couple of pieces of lumber. He hesitates when he enters and realizes that the woman is reciting a speech from a play. Blaze is a big man who walks with a very noticeable limp. He begins to staple some cloth to one of the boards, the stapling making a very loud noise. She becomes distracted by the stapling and asks him to stop for a few minutes until she finishes her speech. When she finishes, she tells him that she got nervous because he was listening to her. She tells him that she performed better when he was working. He tells her ‘Then I’ll always be working.’
We cut to a car driving along where Blaze is sitting in the back seat, saying nothing as his friends plan what songs he should sing at a bar they are going to record at. Little do we know that this will be the last recording that Blaze ever does as he will die within the next couple of weeks. Blaze always said that he would rather be a ‘legend’ than a ‘star’ because a star burns out eventually but a legend is always around. Well, Blaze got his wish, he is definitely a legend in the country music scene and especially in the city of Austin, Texas where he wrote and played music.
This is the fourth film that Ethan Hawke has directed, and this is undoubtedly his best. Co-written by Hawke and Blaze’s wife, Sybil Rosen (based on her memoir ‘Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley’), the film looks back a very troubled man who could have been a major star if he hadn’t been his own worst enemy. It is apparent almost from the start of the film that Hawke feels that Blaze should be better known and celebrated.
The story is told in four different time periods, moving back and forth almost effortlessly: the radio interview where his friends Z land Townes tell Blaze’s life story, the recording of Blaze’s last album “Live at the Austin Outhouse.’. his relationship and eventual marriage to his muse, Sybil, and finally the scene of his death, a rundown house where he and his friends hang out, sing songs and tell stories until his killer shows up.
The heart of the film are the songs, which chronicle the different parts of Blaze’s life. Most of the songs are full of pain (as was Blaze’s life) but there are a couple of songs that were written during his time with Sybil that are full of love and hope. Folk-rock musician Ben Dickey, plays Blaze with powerful results. He perfectly captures the singing styling of Blaze, using his voice to give every word meaning.
Dickey and Ali Shawkat as his wife Sybil, have incredible chemistry together on the screen. Shawkat gives a poignant and stirring performance as the one woman, Sybil, that Blaze loved. They were happiest when they lived in an isolated cabin out in the woods, and they could just be themselves without the weight of the world crashing their hopes and dreams. Their fate is sealed when Sybil decides that they need to move to Austin so that Blaze can sell his songs. It’s a move that will cost them their marriage and eventually, Blaze’s life.
While not shot in Austin, the film does an excellent job of capturing the vibes of the Austin scene of the 70s, when outlaw country was just starting up with Waylon, Willie and the boys like Blaze and Townes. Cinematographer Steve Cosens, gives the film an almost warm feel, bathing the screen in the reds of the stage lights of the bars and honky-tonks that Blaze played in.
Blaze is a loving look at a very flawed man who has the world some beautiful, mournful music that, like Blaze’s songs, touch us in multiple ways.
My Rating: Full Price
My movie rating system from best to worst:
1). I Would Pay to See it Again
2). Full Price
3). Bargain Matinee
5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again