Blaze: Behind the music

Biopics are movies made about stars.

Blaze Foley was never a star, simply a mythical folk hero who played with Townes Van Zandt and had his songs covered by the likes of John Prine, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

It’s fitting then that the independent film telling his story isn’t a traditional paint-by-numbers biopic.

Filled with raw grittiness and passion, “Blaze” is a cinematic work of art on par with films like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Crazy Heart,” an ode to a musical legend.

“Blaze” also happens to be a terrific achievement for the film’s director and co-writer, four time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke.

His best directorial work to date, “Blaze” is ethereal and emotional, visually captivating and scored with an alluring array of Foley’s own tunes sung by musician Ben Dickey who stars as Blaze.

Unlike a traditional music film, “Blaze” does not follow a “cradle to grave” plotline. The movie opens with Blaze at his most wild, hopped up on drugs and banging away at a drum set while ranting about Cesar Chavez.

Almost immediately, viewers are transported to what feels like a different world entirely, a melancholy love story between a young Blaze and the Jewish actress he would run away with to live in a treehouse in the woods.

Whether intentionally or not, Hawke gives viewers momentarily glimpses into Foley’s fragile psyche and these fragments, however fleeting, linger throughout the two-hour running time that becomes a visual tapestry for Blaze’s music.

Dickey embodies Blaze in a way that feels immensely lived in, much in the same way you might describe an inhabited performance from the likes of Gary Oldman or Daniel Day-Lewis.

This is especially stunning considering Dickey makes his acting debut for longtime friend Hawke, who pulls out a sobering, bittersweet turn from the novice actor.

What Hawke and Dickey understand about Foley, it seems, is how theatricality and musicality intertwine into his on-stage performances and Dickey is able to extend that emotion over to the character’s talking voice.

It doesn’t hurt that many of Dickey’s best scenes are paired opposite a riveting, beautiful performance from Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen, Foley’s first love and muse.

Shawkat carries the weight of Sybil’s emotions right on the edge of her lips, in the pupils of her eyes, in such a way that feels both effortless and demonstrably difficult.

Dickey and Shawkat have magnetic chemistry not in the traditional physical sense, but with deep emotional bonds that push and pull back and forth as Blaze and Sybil fall in and out of love.

It’s a true testament to how perfectly cast they are as well as to Hawke’s commitment to making the whole film feel rich and authentic.

This extends to his ensemble cast, which could have easily been littered with star power.

Hawke’s relentlessness to capture the essence of Foley and his era of country music necessitated the casting of pitch-perfect secondary leads that push Dickey’s Blaze forward.

To that end, Charlie Sexton is a revelation as Foley’s friend and musical contemporary Townes Van Zandt, bringing gravitas and quiet confidence to the role of primary storyteller. Sexton has such command of the screen that draws audiences further into the story, while still keeping viewers locked in on Dickey’s Blaze.

Josh Hamilton continues an impressive year of performances, pairing his work here as Blaze’s close friend Zee with a poignant supporting turn in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.”

Stars do come out in smaller roles with the legendary Kris Kristofferson crushing an extended sequence as Blaze’s father, while recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell and frequent Hawke collaborator Richard Linklater join the cast as record executives.

Music drives the film from start to finish, wandering from place to place tangentially as if an improvised jazz solo, or perhaps more appropriately, one of Blaze’s long-winded monologues that serve as preamble to his songs.

The visuals Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens are able to achieve in “Blaze” provide a wonderful backdrop for the whole affair.

Drenched in natural light, “Blaze” can meander from the sepia-tone haze of Foley’s wooded escape to the dank, dark haunts of the Austin Outhouse bar where he played his final show.

It’s in these scenes that Hawke shows true artistry as a director, following random patrons and Blaze himself around the bar, inside and out, without missing a beat. The look of Foley recording his live album covered in red neon with a wall-sized American flag behind him is the kind of cinematic iconography rarely seen on the big screen.

It doesn’t really matter if audiences have heard of Blaze Foley prior to watching the film. There’s enough of his life and free-flowing personality seared into the film to satisfy the curiosity of any moviegoer.

At worst, “Blaze” will have audiences downloading Foley’s music before leaving the theater.

A gorgeous portrait of a man who preferred the anonymity of legend over the notoriety of stardom, “Blaze” revels in artistic homage of a subject truly dedicated to the poetry of love and songwriting.

This is the Ethan Hawke film you have to go out of your way to see as soon as possible. It will be well worth the journey.

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