Blaze (2018)

Directed by Ethan Hawke

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Blaze is a biopic about a musician not many people have heard of.  In interviews Ethan Hawke has explained how the life of Blaze Foley is a lens through which to view anonymity and, in particular, artists who never “make it” in the conventional sense.

Blaze Foley’s (Ben Dickey) story is seen mostly through the eyes of his onetime wife, Sybil Rosen (a co-writer of the film) and two of his friends, musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton).  We follow Blaze’s relationship with Sybil (played by Alia Shawkat) as it leads to and soon through marriage, and this offers the most natural arc of the film.

At the same time we cut between what I believe is meant to be Blaze’s final performance, the day or two before he died.  It’s this story, told in a very concentrated amount of time, that is broken up into chapters by an interview given by Van Zandt and Zee as they recount Blaze’s life after his death, at only 39 years old.  In this interview they speak to an unseen Ethan Hawke, his distinctive raspy voice hard to miss, and it’s not hard to imagine that the questions he asks are the ones he really had about Blaze Foley when he first became involved in the project.

These three storylines establish early on that Blaze experienced some success but ultimately died closer to the bottom than to the top.  It also helps frame his story so that you know the narration is somewhat unreliable.  Zee, for example, will explain to Hawke’s interviewer that he had never met Sybil Rosen and wasn’t even sure what she looked like.  Later in the film we will see Zee and Sybil cross paths.  In another contradiction, one of the two friends says that Blaze died defending his father from a thief, but when we see this scene play out, Blaze is at the home of an unrelated elderly man, a friend.

It doesn’t matter much that these things don’t entirely add up, and in fact the purposefully contradictory testimony add to the ‘storytelling’ theme.  Blaze plays folk music, and each song tells a story, often about his own life.  His career then is one of stories, of seeing the world through a particular, highly subjective lens.  His story is told through other subjective lenses in which people remember things a certain way, sometimes in different ways, without considering what influences their memory.  Of course Sybil remembers him in a more loving manner, and it’s this tone which carries us through most of the film and dictates the sepia-tinted cinematography.

Other people will and do remember him in a different light, and we get a slight sense of that here.  Van Zandt and Zee acknowledge this, but they are still his friends.  Later in the film Blaze will briefly cross paths with three executives (played by a surprising, wonderful trifecta including Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn) who undoubtedly see Blaze in a different light.  Were the film to be told through their eyes, the sepia tones would be replaced with an icy blue filter.

Ethan Hawke is very clear and direct about these ideas in interviews he’s given about the film.  Much of what he says can be found straight in the movie, like Blaze is expressing a shared philosophy through words he may have spoken or which Hawke and Rosen may be attributing to him only now.  Either way Blaze comes across as an enlightened figure, charming and affable but tinged with a melancholy that only grows darker when certain things don’t work out.

His story isn’t that much different than a traditional biopic, and even his untimely death, as tragic as it is, fits into what we expect from these rags to riches stories.  While Blaze never reaches the same heights, he does have some success, and it feels like a success because it’s all relative to his own experience.  When he plays a particular show to a few hundred people, that’s his Madison Square Garden moment, and it feels like it because we’re used to the dive bars he mostly plays in.  In another biopic such a setting might just set the stage for the beginning of the protagonist’s ascent rather than the summit.

Blaze is a little long, but it’s damn charming and sweet.  There are wonderful performances throughout, the movie is beautifully shot, and it all feels quite authentic.  It’s hard to believe that Ben Dickey is a first time actor, though I’m sure there is some crossover here between acting and his performative nature as a singer/songwriter.

Shawkat is great too, in a very understated way, and really every character seems to be fully realized in a way you don’t often see outside of a Coen Brothers’ movie.  Each side character, no matter how many if any lines they receive, feels natural and believable.  Part of this is due to Hawke’s deliberate choice to show unnamed characters either entering or exiting a scene.  It’s a style you might see in something like an Italian Neorealist film where we take purposeful detours from the plot just to remind you that there is a world outside of this story.

Blaze’s anonymity is part of the sales pitch of this movie.  Blaze is about a musician most people have never heard of, and within that sentiment you can examine how everyone has a story, and we will never know most of them.  So that’s why one scene begins with a man walking into a bar to make a call (which frustrates Blaze as he’s in the middle of performing), or why we follow a cook outside to greet his girlfriend or, in particular, why we end the film with a character we’ve never met before.

Everyone’s got a story, and this is Blaze Foley’s.

Up Next: Chappaquiddick (2017), Charade (1963), Mandy (2018)

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