Ethan Hawke's Blaze does what good biopics should do: spur enough interest in the movie's subject as to make viewers explore them in greater depth. Before watching Hawke's fourth feature film, I didn't know ill-fated country-music troubadour Blaze Foley from Just Blaze. After seeing it, I went on a YouTube and Wikipedia bender to make up for lost time. On that criterion alone, Blaze is a success. Hawke made a non-fan deeply care about an obscure figure who makes cult Americana artist (and Foley buddy) Townes Van Zandt seem like Bob Dylan in terms of name recognition. Although luminaries like Lucinda Williams, Merle Haggard, and John Prine have covered Foley's songs, he has remained a mysterious character—but perhaps not for much longer.
Blaze Foley—poignantly inhabited by burly, bearded musician Ben Dickey—was a combination of holy fool, drunken poet, and soulful troubadour. Afflicted with polio and bedeviled by a troubled childhood, Foley poured his sadness into forlorn songs that made being downtrodden seem noble. His lugubrious voice—think a cowboy-hatted Leonard Cohen—perfectly embodied the Texas-based songwriter's heart-shattering lyrics.
Blaze follows Foley's rocky relationship with his Jewish actor girlfriend/wife Sybil Rosen (who cowrote the script with Hawke and penned the memoir on which the movie's based, Living in the Woods in a Tree; she's portrayed by an earnest Alia Shawkat), his struggle to make it in the music industry, his brief flirtation with artistic/commercial success, and his tragic end at age 39. Using radio interviews with friends and natural raconteurs Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, wonderfully wry and grave) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) as a storytelling device, Hawke wrings much pathos and wit from Foley's frequent self-sabotages and rare triumphs. For such a doleful saga, Blaze provokes many rueful chuckles.
“I don’t wanna be a star,” Blaze tells Sybil early in their courtship. “I wants to be a legend. Stars burn out because they shine for themselves. Legends last forever.” This film could help fulfill that prophesy.