Chances are you’ve never heard of Michael David Fuller or his stage persona, Blaze Foley. But Ethan Hawke thinks you should. And it’s hard to argue once he’s stated his case in his artfully mounted “Blaze.” It may be a behind-the-music biopic in theory, but it’s closer to a psychological study of a self-destructive artist who tried, but failed, to outrun the demons of an alcohol-fueled martyrdom born out of an abusive childhood.
As you’d expect, it’s incredibly sad. But then so were Foley’s magnificent songs, recorded by the likes of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle. And what drew them to Foley was his ability to match an exquisite melody to soul-baring lyrics that stretched far beyond the usual paeans to wine, women and achy-breaky hearts. If anything, his songs were closer to the blues, dwelling on his tattered suitcase full of regrets. And chief among them was the muse he loved and lost, Sybil Rosen.
It’s her memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree,” that piqued Hawke’s interest in Foley. And who better to help him write a script painting a haunting portrait of a man so afraid of failure he never realized how gifted he was as a songwriter? “Clay Pigeon,” “Should Have Been Home” and my personal favorite, “If I Could Only Fly,” are all unsung classics sung by the class of country music. But Foley was often too soused to know it — and doomed to never find out; cut down by a bullet at 39 in 1989.
Hawke, taking his third — and best — stab at directing, dutifully shows us how Foley died. But his focus is on how Foley lived, from the happy days in the wooded artist commune in Georgia, where he met Rosen, to the dark, drunken episodes set in booze-filled honkytonks where he mixed bruising brawls with beautiful ballads of love and loss. But don’t enter expecting something akin to “Ray” or “Walk the Line.” What Hawke has assembled is far more challenging in structure and mood.
Like Foley’s songs, “Blaze” is mellow, leisurely and opaque, free of judgment and deep in exploring the relationships that shaped the man fellow troubadour Lucinda Williams accurately dubbed “Drunken Angel.” It jumps around in time, often to the point of disorientation. It’s episodic, too. But it’s also philosophical, viewing Foley as a disciple-like sage who was as quick with a dumb joke as he was with a mouth-gaping insight on the meaning of life.
Like Jesus, he dressed in rags and rarely bothered to trim his hair or beard, earning the nickname Duct Tape Messiah. And somewhere behind all the unkemptness resides Benjamin Dickey, a singer-turned-actor Hawke had the fortuity to befriend and even bigger fortune to cast as Foley. It’s a huge gamble that pays off handsomely in an Oscar-worthy performance that never fails to dazzle with its depth and scope. Even better, Dickey does all his own singing, live on film, as does Bob Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton as Foley’ best friend, Townes Van Zandt.
If I hadn’t mentioned it, you’d never know Dickey and Sexton were amateurs, given how well both are coached by an old pro like Hawke. The result is a couple of portrayals that feel natural and as comfortable as well-worn shoes. Even better are their voices, often blending into godly harmonies that send goosebumps. But Hawke is more interested — and rightly so — in how Van Zandt and Foley were enablers for bad behaviors that were their own worst enemies. In scene after scene we watch them aid and abet their eventual downfalls.
Both actors are terrific, but Alia Shawkat is the one who walks off with the movie — and your heart — as the much put-upon Sybil Rosen. It’s a stunning performance. Yes, Shawkat has the benefit of getting to know Rosen both personally and through a script her alter-ego co-wrote. But neither of those familiarities have anything to do with the amount of humanity Shawkat brings in convincingly showing why Rosen believed in the physically and emotionally challenged Foley as intensely as she did. It makes for a wrenching love story, enhanced by the knowledge that most of Foley’s saddest and best songs were inspired by her.
Shawkat gives “Blaze” its fire, but as flammable as that is, the film is not likely to entice the masses, who tend to turn their noses up at films as elliptical and esoteric as what Hawke has produced. It’s also relentlessly downbeat, interrupted only occasionally by a semblance of mirth, mostly in cameos by Steve Zahn, director Richard Linklater (a longtime Hawke collaborator) and reigning Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell as nouveau riche record company execs puzzled by what to make of a wild critter like Blaze Foley. Come to think of it, some of you might have the same reaction. But it’s not the man you need to adore, it’s his saintly songs, each more beautiful than the one before it. They are every bit as brilliant as the uncontrollable fire that was Blaze.
Cast includes Benjamin Dickey, Charlie Sexton, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Steve Zahn and Sam Rockwell.
(R for language throughout, some sexual content and drug use.)