Directed By: Ethan Hawke/2018
The world has seen plenty of biopics about a struggling artist with all of the potential in the world, who reaches the pinnacle of pop culture, only to crash and burn in a sea of sex, drugs, and the like. Eventually, if a film such as this continues to follow the established pattern, the artist is given a chance at redemption, usually guided by one person who believed in them against all odds. This is the rise, fall, and redemption arc of countless films. For director Ethan Hawke, Blaze could not be that type of film.
Blaze Foley was a Texas singer-songwriter whose name few will know. He never truly ascended to great heights, so his isn’t a story that will necessitate a great fall and chance for redemption. It is a film about a man, however, whose legacy is bound up more in the impact he made on those closest to him, than an artist who sold a certain amount of records, or had a certain amount of hits. The brilliance of this story is that it truly captures the essence and soul of a man few may know, but by the credits will wish they had.
Ben Dickey, the front man for the band Blood Feathers, struck up a friendship with Hawke nearly 15 years ago. Hawke was a fan of Blood Feathers, and Hawke’s wife was friends with Dickey’s girlfriend. Eventually they struck up a conversation about music and they discovered that Blaze Foley was a mutual inspiration. Dickey, whose size and voice emulated Foley, seemed like a natural fit. Hawke broached the subject about Dickey one day playing Blaze Foley in a movie one day. What started off as just talk led to one of the best casting decisions ever for a musical biopic. Dickey, who had never acted before, took on the role of Foley and embodied him in a way that even those who may have known him best saw Foley, not Dickey, in the performance.
The film was inspired by the memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, by Foley’s wife Sybil Rosen, played wonderfully in the film by Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Green Room). Sybil and Hawke collaborated on the film’s screenplay, and Sybil was on set adding stories of their lives together that brought an authenticity to the filming in segments that maybe wouldn’t be believed otherwise, but find themselves captured wonderfully on film.
At the Texas press tour in Houston, Hawke described the last day of shooting and how Sybil Rosen came up to him and said, “I haven’t asked anything from you during this shoot…”. Hawke knew something was coming, but played along, “And?”. “Could we try to do just one thing?”. Eventually she asked as Ben and Alia, who were spending this last day shooting shots of Blaze and the on-screen Sybil hanging out in the woods and in the tree-house home they lived in for a couple of years, just doing the things that demonstrated the remarkable love that existed between them. Her request was if Ben and Alia could get on the tree-house, it was now dark, and howl at the moon? Given that Ethan was only shooting with a 35-mm camera, he was sure to pass, but he ran the idea of Sybil’s by his cinematographer, Steve Cosens, who said that the moon she wanted in the background would maybe look like a street light given the lens, however when he ascended to the hilltop vantage point Sybil suggested, he was won over. Hawke reluctantly acquiested, feeling that the shot sounded too cheesy. The actors played along, got on the rooftop and howled. Hawke then leaned in and told all of us in the intimate room, after a very hard pause….”the wolves howled back!”. This shot is of course in the film and is an example of how natural of a fit this film, its subject matter, and the music was for everyone involved in making Blaze.
Hawke also did the hard work of casting real musicians to be in this film, starting with Dickey, but also casting many of Blaze’s band to play themselves in the performance scenes. Townes Van Zandt, the amazingly gifted songwriter is played by the amazing guitarist Charlie Sexton. Kris Kristopherson powerful presence, with very few words, in a scene where he plays Blaze’s father, and where Blaze’s sister is played by Alynda Lee Segarra of the band Hurray for the Riff Raff. When Alynda and Ben Dickey perform a gospel hymn in the film, there was just a beautiful silence in the audience that felt like a reverent moment. Segarra also appears on the soundtrack singing Lucinda Williams’ classic song Drunken Angel, which was written about Foley.
Perhaps the greatest supporting actor in the film is Josh Hamilton. While receiving much praise this year for his performance in the amazing film Eighth Grade, Hamilton has quietly gone unnoticed over the years. Anyone who is watching, however, will see an actor who truly understands his craft, and whose performance elevates everyone else around him.
Hawke had high praise for Hamilton, and Shawkat, in how they helped Dickey feel comfortable taking on the challenge of acting, and Hamilton even teaching Ben that its the little things one does that makes a performance, including thinking about details like what you have in your pockets and how that affects your stride as you walk, which lends itself to the character. Ben learned the lessons well, as he not only tries to walk in Blaze Foley’s shoes, but perfectly embodies the man whose shoes he is in.
Blaze Foley was a self-destructive man and the film doesn’t seek to gloss over that fact. This film is about embracing the truth of the man, warts and all, but also running with the mystery and mystique that surrounded him. There are 4 rumors, Hawke claims, of how Foley died. The facts are that it was due to being shot outside Austin, Texas by his friend’s son who was stealing his dad’s pension checks. The film deals with this event directly, but also seeks to stoke some of the fires of Blaze’s legend.
Sexton’s film version of Townes Van Zandt perpetuates some of this mystique, building the legend of Blaze Foley, as it were, in an on-air radio interview in the film, where Hawke briefly appears as the radio DJ interviewing him. Hamilton’s character also sits next to Townes, though he captures an entirely different essence of Blaze in the same interview: the man himself, without the legend.
This film was a breath of fresh air, albeit a somewhat dark tale given the journey towards self-destruction that Blaze seemed to be on. Blaze’s relationship with, and the love shared with Sybil is the real heart of this story, and both Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat deserve some award nods for their performances.
Even though Blaze passed away years ago, his music is slowly emerging, after much of it was thought lost, or confiscated. Selected artists that have covered Blaze Foley’s tunes include Merle Haggard (If I Could Only Fly, also as a duet with Willie Nelson), Lyle Lovett (Election Day), and John Prine (Clay Pigeons-also covered separately by Michael Cera). The soundtrack of Ben Dickey singing as Blaze is a must-buy, based purely on the press tour concert we were treated to at Houston’s legendary Rockefeller’s, a stage that Merle Haggard had played, and that Blaze himself had played decades ago.
As Dickey began to perform, we could hear in these songs the brilliance emanating from the talent of the artist, he channeled. While Dickey is a talented artist in his own right, that night, and in the film, he is a conduit to a Texas-based legend, that some luminaries now celebrate, but so few people know. Thanks to Ethan Hawke’s passion for this singer, and his amazingly directed film, many more have the chance to be introduced.