Last night in Austin, Texas Ethan Hawke gleefully addressed an audience of moviegoers while donning a jacket made entirely of duct tape - a symbolic statement and personal tribute to the man that influenced his new film, Blaze. He emphasized his fourth directorial feature is a labor-of-love biopic and how the film is ultimately one long, beautiful love song. The passion he has for his hometown of Austin, Texas, its local musicians, and the legendary Blaze Foley is palpable. Not one to shy away from a statement, he took the opportunity to stress that his movie was made with the kind of creativity, love, music, and spirit he believes we all need right now - and he was right.
Blaze Foley, born Michael David Fuller, was a staple in the Austin country and folk music scene throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. He had an ability to write bluesy ballads and serenade audiences with his sweet melodies drenched in sadness. He did not conform to traditional society standards and was often homeless and hitchhiking, but nonetheless seemingly happy with his decision to devote his entire life to music and love. His songs were covered by several famous musicians including Willie Nelson and Foley’s personal friend, Townes Van Zandt. However, his notoriety came to fruition with his tragic death in 1989 when he was shot in the stomach while attempting to defend a friend.
The concept of Blaze began once Hawke read Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, a memoir written by Foley’s love Sybil Rosen, in which she recounts her time spent in a secluded treehouse where she witnessed the blossoming of their affection and Blaze’s music style. Rosen was brought on to co-write the film alongside Hawke and was on set for a large portion of filming, which she admitted was both heartwarming and surreal. The authenticity of the film’s narrative is therefore layered in personal touches and fond memories which unravel into a love story that caused quite a few tears to fall in the theatre. Sybil is gracefully played by Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, The Final Girls). Shawkat delivers a tone of battered strength and ambitious beauty to Sybil, a romantic and aspiring Broadway actress. She meets Blaze at a time in his life where he is still Michael or sporting his stage name “Deputy Dawg”. Bonding over their misfit identities (he is overweight and has a limp due to contracting Polio as a child, and she is a Jewish woman once outcast by her peers), the two effortlessly fall in love. Musician Ben Dickey wears the E.T. wide-brim hat as Blaze Foley and delivers an impressive first-time performance on screen. Like Foley, Dickey was also born in Arkansas and Hawke knew he would be perfect for the role when he saw him play Blaze’s “Clay Pigeons” at a party. Shawkat and Dickey’s chemistry on camera is tastefully tangible and conjures up the giddy nature of first loves, but also the gravity of heartbreak and lingering adoration that still looms for people years after they go their own ways.
As a director, Hawke is also not one to adhere to the norm and does not prefer a stereotypical narrative structure. Therefore, the layout of Blaze is crafted in a somewhat retrospective three-fold manner. One narrative follows Foley playing a show at The Outhouse shortly before he was killed; the second is the love story between Sybil and him; and the third is a radio interview featuring Townes Van Zandt (played by a damaged yet charismatic Charlie Sexton) and harmonica player, Zee (Josh Hamilton). The three plotlines intertwine seamlessly and provide various insights into the man, the myth, and the legend that is Blaze Foley. While it would be easy to glorify him given the Texas roots and musical influence behind the film, Hawke and Rosen stay grounded in their portrayal while revealing most of Blaze’s troubles to be self-inflicted - a man whose stage fright, substance abuse, and at times selfish ambition got the best of him. From the beginning, Foley has his eye set on becoming a legend in his own right, yet does not want to sell-out to stardom. Utilizing close-up camera shots, stages of his professional career and love life are intimately captured through the perspectives of those closest to him, while several scenes consist of Foley on stage rambling into a microphone murmuring philosophic observations, or drunkenly recounting memories of his abusive father.
Blaze is also decorated with Texas nostalgia. Southern ways of life, songs, and familiar people on camera will hit home to natives or anyone currently living in the Lone Star State. Veteran Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Dazed and Confused) tackles a supporting role as a record label executive alongside Sam Rockwell and Steve Zhan, who go bankrupt at the hand of Foley and Van Zandt’s lavish spending. Cinematographer Steve Cosens provides a Western visual aesthetic fitting for each narrative. The storyline of Sybil and Blaze is soaked in a tint reminiscent of a Texas hill country sunset where magic hour is glazed with heavy sunbeams while romance fills the hot Southern air. Scenes at the bar are a stark red as Foley takes the stage where his patience of the inattentive audience is as worn as his cowboy hat and faded jeans. Shots of the men playing music have a sort of light amber hue that calls to mind the color a reflection of a beer bottle casts on a rustic picnic table, whereas the interview scenes are colder and more matter-of-fact with a vintage greyscale that compliments Townes’ dark sense of humor.
Like the man himself, Blaze is both sincerely simplistic and creatively complex. Everyone involved in the film added their own love letter to Foley’s memory, and at times, felt drawn out in length as a result. However, the passion behind the film is evident. A broken heart of cinematic gold radiates through the screen as the film spotlights a man and his music which has influenced artists for decades and will continue to do so for years to come.