With Blaze, a fractured story of country music singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, director Ethan Hawke admirably battles the clichés of the musical biopic. This genre is often concerned with talents who burn out from addictions and demons, as well as from the excesses of fame and road life. And Foley (played by musician Ben Dickey) fits this bill, as he was a volcanic drinker and sniffer who was underrated as an artist, eclipsed by cohorts such as Townes Van Zandt (played by musician Charlie Sexton), and who died before reaching 40 in an absurd act of violence. Foley also married Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) and lived with her in a cabin in the middle of nowhere for a year—an idyll that Hawke reasonably speculates to have haunted Foley while he recorded Live at the Austin Outhouse. With this scenario, Hawke could’ve mounted a perfectly respectable and unsurprising portrait of an artist’s rise and fall, but the filmmaker understands this formula to compromise the spontaneous chaos of art-making and life in general.
In response to the deadening complacency that’s nurtured by a well-oiled three-act structure, Hawke places scenes inside of one another like nesting dolls, emulating an idea that was proffered in Waking Life, a film by Hawke’s frequent collaborator Richard Linklater, who has an amusing cameo here. In Linklater’s film, which also starred Hawke, a character writes a novel that’s concerned only with a singular thought process, proclaiming it to be about all of existence. Similarly, much of Blaze is positioned as the remembrances of Van Zandt, while he’s promoting No Deeper Blue, and of Foley while he’s recording Live at the Austin Outhouse. These remembrances overlap and might even inhabit one another, giving Hawke what he clearly wants: permission to roam in this druggy, sexy, sinister barroom milieu.
Blaze’s first hour is a free-floating, refreshingly exposition-free exploration of an aloof talent who’s never quite there. We’re allowed to feel as if we’re inhabiting Foley’s world, particularly as the camera drinks in the denizens of the bar where Foley recorded Live at the Austin Outhouse. The camera often roams, and the cinematography is rich in blurry auburns that suggest this film to be a kind of memory play. Certain scenes are intentionally difficult to decipher, as they’re occupied by characters mumbling almost in code, yet other moments stick out of the druggy soup like diamonds, such as when Foley and Rosen visit Foley’s father, a hard drinker and abuser who’s losing his mind, and who’s played almost wordlessly by a majestic Kris Kristofferson.
And Foley’s on-screen relationship with Rosen is intimately romantic and heartbreaking, especially for Shawkat’s ferocious performance. Her Rosen is an embodiment of all the women who’ve propped up macho artists who turn out to be frightened children once their braggadocio has been pruned away. When Foley drunkenly trashes the guitar that Rosen worked her ass off to buy him, it feels like an operatic betrayal. Foley would later empathize with his lover on Live at the Austin Outhouse and his lover would subsequently empathize with him in her memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree, and Hawke strives to render a dimension in which multiple artworks coalesce to foster an empathy that’s only retrospectively possible. Consciousness—wounded, creative, and divorced of time—is Hawke’s subject in Blaze.
In Blaze, Hawke allows himself to enjoy Foley’s misbehavior, which leavens the fanciness of the film’s ellipses. Yet this structure undermines Hawke in the second half of the narrative, in which Foley falls apart while fashioning his best music. Striving to be unsentimental, Hawke emphasizes Foley’s destruction at the expense of dramatizing the artist’s work ethic, allowing scenes to stretch out into monotony. Though the film runs almost wall to wall with Foley and Van Zandt’s music, it’s possible to watch Blaze and underestimate the stature of these men’s achievements—an irony that’s compounded by Hawke’s somewhat spiteful portrait of Van Zandt as a social climber and fraud. Hawke’s sympathy for his subject leads him to a place that Foley would probably understand all too well: oblivion.