Cinema Review: Blaze | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Ethan Hawke

Oct 26, 2018 Web Exclusive
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There’s a moment in Blaze, the new film chronicling the life of ill-fated country singer Blaze Foley, when fellow songwriter and friend Townes Van Zandt recalls accepting the sacrifices required of a successful songwriter. There’s no meeting halfway, no hedging. Van Zandt, played by Charlie Sexton, realized, “It’ll take blowing everything off,” he says. “Family, money, security, friends. Blow it off. Get a guitar and go.”

It’s not explicit if Foley, born Michael Fuller, consciously came to the same realization, though he likely did. In the end, it cost him the most stabilizing relationship in his life — his marriage to playwright and actor Sybil Rosen, played by Alia Shawkat — along with his battles with sobriety and self-destruction.

Foley’s early scenes with Rosen as the two fall in love and retreat to a treehouse in the Texan woods prove most affective. Rosen co-wrote the film with director Ethan Hawke, and it’s here where we become best acquainted with Foley: clever, tender, charming and metaphysical in a cosmic country way. The scenes play as flashback, introduced by Foley decades later as mumbled, awkward stage banter at his last gig in Austin, Tx on the day he was later killed by a bullet to the torso at age 39.

Blaze benefits from the relative obscurity of its subject. It allows Hawke and Rosen to draw a character unburdened by general audience expectations, or distracting debates regarding the canniness of actor and musician Ben Dickey’s excellent leading performance. The tragic near-miss story of Foley’s life and career also allows the film to sidestep music biopic clichés: a dramatic rise followed by excess, histrionics, a fall and late-life redemption. Instead, Hawke focuses on character, atmosphere and a long-gone moment in Austin music history when generational talents like Foley and Van Zandt might rub elbows in a near-empty saloon. The filmmakers’ apparent wariness over audience familiarity does drive the film’s biggest weakness — an overreliance on a fictionalized Towne Van Zandt radio interview that provides the larger framing device for the film. It allows for far too much telling and not enough showing. The strength of Foley’s songs speak for themselves, and Dickey’s acting and singing are more than enough to convince the audience of Foley’s mysterious, magnetic presence and talent.

To be sure, Van Zandt played an important role in Foley’s life, for better or for worse; the two were overindulgent drinking buddies, and notoriously hard-living Van Zandt and Foley likely enabled each other in their worst impulses. It also gives Van Zandt the opportunity to tell the most famous story about Foley and their hard-luck crew. After Foley was buried in a duct taped casket, Van Zandt and friends dug up Foley’s body to retrieve a ticket in his pocket for a pawned guitar. The tall tales are balanced by on-screen tender moments between the two, as well, like the final show in Austin, when the headlining Van Zandt is too strung out to finish “Pancho and Lefty.” Foley ambles on stage with a permanent limp, caused by a childhood bout with Polio, and sings the words as Van Zandt struggles through the guitar chords. It’s the closest the film comes to a big emotional moment.

Hawke is a restrained director, keeping barroom violence and the final gunshot of Foley’s life off-screen. The biggest stylistic decision is a sepia tone saturation and vignette edge-blurring that lends some nostalgic effect. But those visual motifs never betray the hard realities of Foley’s failings, and any heavenly light shown on the “Drunken Angel,” as he was immortalized by Lucinda Williams, is largely allowed to come from within and not from above.


Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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