The Music Soars As A Singer Burns Out In A Muddled 'Blaze'

Sep 6, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 1:10 pm

The voice of country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley sounds familiar, even if you've never heard it. It has a timbre, an ache that doesn't slow a song — as if to say, "Look how sad I am" — but drives it.

Foley was one of those artists who, however unruly his life, could center himself in his writing and playing long enough to sit in judgment on himself. That's what the director Ethan Hawke and the star Ben Dickey capture in the new film Blaze — and whatever else they miss it's more than enough.

Dickey is a musician who has never acted before. Although he doesn't have that iconic country baritone, he makes you believe he wrote Foley's songs. When Dickey performs, the movie is great. Hawke plainly loves hanging out with him, the way musicians — and Hawke is one, too — sit around for hours, playing, talking, drinking.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens frames shots in ways that seem loose but capture both the grain of a place and its aura, how it seeps into people. Throughout the film, Hawke keeps returning to Foley's last show at Austin's legendary Outhouse bar, where he's at the end of his tether but not — even whiskey-addled — his talent.

Sadly, the rest of Blaze doesn't have that simplicity. It has fancy-pants technique — it's a flashback full of flash-forwards — and a limited vantage, that of Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hawke.

Rosen met Foley in 1975 while working as an actress in a Georgia artist community. She lived with him in the woods in a tree house — hence her 2008 memoir's title, Living in a Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.

Alia Shawkat, who plays Rosen, is an excellent actress, and she shores up the novice actor Dickey the way I imagine Sybil Rosen shored up Blaze. That's how Rosen presents it, anyway. She and director Hawke view Foley's life as a struggle between two poles: the nurturing life force symbolized by that tree house; and the death-driven road, where Foley wanted to be a legend, falling in with the drug-fueled singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

Van Zandt is played in Blaze by the charismatic musician Charlie Sexton. In one of the film's threads, he tells stories about Foley to a clueless radio host played by Hawke, seen only from behind. Van Zandt insists musicians need to "turn their backs on their families" and find a sphere apart, to the point of courting chaos.

This is not, however, a film about the romance of self-destruction. If anything, it goes too far in the opposite direction, so that Foley and Van Zandt seem rudderless. Their scenes together are blurry, dull. They don't spark each other. Dickey's Foley is soft. While other characters allude to his frightening temper, he's more like a wayward teddy bear fated to stagger into a trap.

Meanwhile, Hawke's syntax — the jumps from the Austin Outhouse concert to Van Zandt's radio interview to life in the tree house and back — muddles the momentum. He even inexplicably jumps forward and back within scenes. He's like a film student fiddling around in the editing room, and he makes a hash of the events leading up to Foley's violent death.

The magic in Blaze is when time stops. In one scene, Foley, Rosen and Foley's sister, played by the musician Alynda Segarra, visit Foley's once-abusive, near-senile father, played by Kris Kristofferson. When Foley and his sister sing a sad, sweet duet for the old man, you can imagine Kristofferson hearing it on two levels, as the now childlike father and also as the singer-songwriter who knew the real Foley, Van Zandt and other musicians who burned themselves out, supposedly for art's sake.

That's what Hawke accomplishes in Blaze, for all his silly directorial stutter steps: He makes you believe in the power of music to summon ghosts.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Texas-raised country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley is the subject of the new film "Blaze," directed and co-written by Ethan Hawke. It's based on a memoir by Foley's ex-partner, Sybil Rosen, and stars musicians Ben Dickey and Charlie Sexton, with Alia Shawkat as Rosen. Before we hear David Edelstein's review, let's listen to a bit of the real Foley singing his song "Clay Pigeons."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAY PIGEONS")

BLAZE FOLEY: (Singing) I'd like to stay, but I might have to go to start over again. Might go back down to Texas, might go to somewhere I've never been, and get up in the morning and go out at night and I won't have to go home. Get used to being alone, change the words to this song, start singing again.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Blaze Foley - the voice sounds familiar even if you've never heard it. It's the timbre, the ache that doesn't slow the song - as if to say, look how sad I am - but drives it. Blaze Foley was one of those artists who, however unruly his life, could center himself in his writing and playing long enough to sit in judgment on himself. That's what the director Ethan Hawke and the star Ben Dickey capture in "Blaze." And whatever else they miss, it's more than enough. Dickey is a musician who's never acted before. Although he doesn't have that iconic country baritone, he makes you believe he wrote Foley's songs. He talks to us through them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLAZE")

BEN DICKEY: (As Blaze Foley, singing) I'd like to stay, but I might have to go to start over again. I might go back to Texas. I might go to some place that I've never been. Get up in the morning and go out at night, and I won't have to come home. Get used to being alone, change the words to this song, start singing again.

EDELSTEIN: When Dickey performs, the movie is great. Hawke plainly loves hanging out with him the way musicians - Hawke is one, too - sit around for hours playing, talking, drinking. Cinematographer Steve Cosens frames shots in ways that seem loose but capture both the grain of a place and its aura, how it seeps into people. Throughout the film, Hawke keeps returning to Foley's last show at Austin's legendary Outhouse Bar where he's at the end of his tether but not, even whiskey-addled, his talent.

Sadly, the rest of "Blaze" doesn't have that simplicity. It has fancy-pants technique. It's a flashback full of flash-forwards and a limited vantage, that of Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hawke. Rosen met Foley in 1975 while working as an actress in a Georgia artist community, and she lived with him in the woods in a treehouse, hence her 2008 memoir's title, "Living In The Woods In A Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley." Early on, Rosen, played by frizzy-haired Alia Shawkat, gets to know Dickey's big, bearded Blaze. And you feel their goofy rapport, though Dickey's diction is on the muddy side.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLAZE")

ALIA SHAWKAT: (As Sybil Rosen) So you're going to be a big country star like Roger Miller, huh?

DICKEY: (As Blaze Foley) I don't want to be a star. I wants to be a legend.

SHAWKAT: (As Sybil Rosen) What's the difference, deadbeat?

DICKEY: (As Blaze Foley) Well, stars burn out 'cause they shine for themselves. Look at me shine. Look at me glow. I'm amazing. Legend lasts forever.

EDELSTEIN: Alia Shawkat is an excellent actress, and she shores up the novice actor Ben Dickey the way I imagine Sybil Rosen shored up Blaze. That's how Rosen presents it anyway. She and director Ethan Hawke view Foley's life as a struggle between two poles - the nurturing life force symbolized by that treehouse and the death-driven road where Foley wanted to be a legend, falling in with the drug-fueled singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt is played in "Blaze" by the charismatic musician Charlie Sexton. And in one of the film's threads, he tells stories about Foley to a clueless radio host played by Hawke, seen only from behind. Van Zandt insists musicians need to turn their backs on their families and find a sphere apart to the point of courting chaos.

This is not, however, a film about the romance of self-destruction. If anything, it goes too far in the opposite direction so that Foley and Van Zandt seem rudderless. Their scenes together are blurry, dull. They don't spark each other. Dickey's Foley is soft. While other characters allude to his frightening temper, he's more like a wayward teddy bear fated to stagger into a trap. Meanwhile, Hawke's syntax that jumps from the Austin Outhouse concert to Van Zandt's radio interview to life in the treehouse and back muddles the momentum. He even inexplicably jumps forward and back within scenes. He's like a film student fiddling around in the editing room, and he makes a hash of the events leading up to Foley's violent death.

The magic in "Blaze" is when time stops. In one scene, Foley, Rosen and Foley's sister, played by the musician Alynda Lee Segarra, visit Foley's once-abusive, near-senile father played by Kris Kristofferson. When Foley and his sister sing a sad, sweet duet for the old man, you can imagine Kristofferson hearing it on two levels, as the now childlike father and also the singer-songwriter who knew the real Foley, Van Zandt and other musicians who burn themselves out supposedly for art's sake. That's what Ethan Hawke accomplishes in "Blaze." For all his silly directorial stutter steps, he makes you believe in the power of music to summon ghosts.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with John Kerry or last week's series with current Emmy nominees, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.