One of the most pleasurable aspects of seeing movies is that sometimes you walk into a film and learn about something or someone that you had absolutely no idea about beforehand, and are hopefully entertained while doing so. This was the case with Blaze, a film directed by Ethan Hawke (who also has a small role, although we largely just see the back of his head and hear his voice) about the itinerant musician Michael David Fuller, better known as Blaze Foley, whose short life and fragmentary career as part of the “outlaw country” scene became the stuff of legend in certain circles.
Foley was born in Arkansas in 1949 and seemingly destined for a career in music. Initially part of a gospel group with his mother and siblings called The Singing Fuller Family, he later set out on his own as a songwriter and performer, drifting through Texas, Georgia and Chicago (among other places) and often living essentially as a vagrant. Drugs, alcohol and perhaps mental illness also took their toll on Foley, although he died at the age of 39 not from any of those issues but after being shot in the chest by the son of a friend, after accusing the son of stealing his father’s pension and welfare checks to buy drugs.
Along the way, Blaze met an artist named Sybil Rosen and began a relationship with her, the two of them living together in a house (more like a shack) in the woods for some time and eventually getting married. The mysterious connection between the two — a Southerner from a Christian country background and a Jew with a suburban upbringing — forms the nucleus of Hawke’s film, which is carried by outstanding performances from musician Benjamin Dickey as Blaze (in his first major screen role) and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) as Sybil (the real-life Sybil co-wrote the movie with Hawke, based on her memoir).
At first Hawke’s narrative style — flipping back and forth between timelines, some Terrence Malick-like cutting and voiceover — seems almost self-consciously pretentious and even designed to keep the viewer at a distance. But as the film goes on, it becomes evident that Hawke is trying to perhaps capture the way that Foley’s mind itself might have worked: fragmented, free-floating, not always sure of the time and place and chronology of events, barely held together like the way Foley held his personal possessions together with duct tape. And throughout it all, the music plays softly in the background, providing not just a soundtrack for the film but, in the same fashion, a cinematic approximation of the way that Foley’s own creativity simmered constantly in his soul.
Dickey’s performance is gentle, lived-in and instantly warm, even as the threats of mental disintegration and quick anger-to-violence escalation (both possibly legacies of his now dementia-addled father, who we meet briefly in the person of Kris Kristofferson) hover around the edges of his fuzzily woven life. Even as a viewer not knowing much about Foley, watching Dickey makes one feel that you are watching the actual man — he’s that natural in the role. Shawkat has the more traditional arc, as she slowly and painfully outgrowing the child-like man she still deeply cares for, and the grief of that realization is written on her expressive face, making theirs a truly tragic romance.
It’s easy from that point to see where the deep melancholy in Foley’s songs came from, and how they touched such a deep emotional chord that artists like Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, Joe Nichols and Kings of Leon have responded either by covering his tunes or writing their own in tribute to him. Foley himself recorded at least three albums’ worth of material, either live or in the studio, but the release of that music has been as patchy and incomplete as Foley’s own life (his dealings with the music industry are represented by a trio of clownish would-be record execs played amusingly by Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and filmmaker Richard Linklater). The way the embers of his legacy are kept alive after his death is embodied in the movie by a radio interview with fellow musicians Zee (possibly a composite, played by Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zant, a real-life “outlaw country” figure who also died early and is played here in gravelly, somewhat ambivalent fashion by Charlie Sexton.
Would Blaze Foley have been revered as a great country artist if he was better known? Could he have ever become a star? These are questions that Hawke’s film doesn’t address, nor does it delve too deeply into what exactly made the man tick, preferring instead to let the film do that through the esthetic that Hawke employs. That results, however, in leaving the film with a somewhat perfunctory feeling as it ambles toward Foley’s inevitable doom. But perhaps Hawke (who’s having a hell of a year in front of the camera as well) is just trying to show how true talent can be hidden in places that most people never get to see. This film does its best to rectify that.
Blaze is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye