It requires a certain kind of audacity to make a biopic about someone nobody’s heard of, but maybe that’s what frees Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” from this tired genre’s typical doldrums. A portrait of the late, little-known Texas troubadour Blaze Foley, the film takes a loving but clear-eyed look at the short life of a hard-drinking hillbilly poet who blew every big break he ever got. Pitched somewhere between a tall tale and an expose, marinated in the whiskey and cocaine benders of outlaw country music’s juke joint fringe, it’s a richly ambivalent film about artistic expression as its own reward and the bad romance of our most destructive impulses.
Beloved by his fellow songwriters, Foley inspired his running buddy Townes Van Zandt to write “Blaze’s Blues,” and was subsequently immortalized in Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” as “Some kind of savior singing the blues/A derelict in your duct tape shoes.” But maybe the most apt description comes from a Willie Nelson epigram that opens the picture: “There was a lot to old Blaze.”
Played by musician Ben Dickey as a hulking hobo with sad eyes and a child-like grin, he’s an awful lot indeed. Hawke, who co-wrote the screenplay with Foley’s widow Sybil Rosen, splits the story onto three separate tracks and switches off between scenes. First we’re following Blaze’s final performance, recorded for posterity at a dump aptly named The Outhouse, where the disheveled singer tries to get through his considerable back catalog without wasting too much stage time picking fights with members of the audience or ranting about his hatred of Ronald Reagan.
Our unreliable narration arrives via a radio interview with Van Zandt (strikingly well-played by guitar hero Charlie Sexton) who feeds increasingly grandiose anecdotes about life on the road with Blaze to a clueless country DJ with a voice that might sound familiar. (It’s Hawke, glimpsed only from behind and acting with the back of his head to droll comic effect.) Bristling in the studio with them is Josh Hamilton’s long-suffering harmonica player, Zee, who was along for the ride and is choking back considerably less laudatory memories of everybody’s exploits.
But the heart of the film lies in a Georgia treehouse, where Blaze lived for a year with his beloved wife Sybil (beautifully played by Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development”) and where the two grew into themselves and apart from one another. They make a wonderfully incongruous couple, the lumbering, barefoot Pentecostal and his nebbishy little Jewish girl, with a bantering chemistry that runs deep. It’s a refreshingly adult depiction of two people who won’t stop loving one another even after figuring out they’re all wrong for each other.
Jason Gourson’s fleet editing stacks all these timelines on top of one another with considerable dexterity, often allowing Foley’s songs to play out in their entirety while we’re skipping between eras. (You can always tell what year it is by the length of Blaze’s beard.) Because we’re not dealing with a famous figure, Hawke is freed from the traditional obligation to run through Wikipedia biography bullet points, and instead ventures down alleys more unexpected and aligned with his interests.
The film’s rambling, boozy arguments amid overflowing ashtrays can at times resemble a John Cassavetes movie in a 10-gallon hat. But as it went on “Blaze” put me more in mind of Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic “Bird,” not just in its similarly discursive, musical structure but also because in both movies we see a hard-working Hollywood veteran’s fascination-slash-revulsion regarding a genius who threw it all away. Hawke has managed to stay relevant for three decades while a lot of his peers that initially burned brighter flamed out awfully fast. As a filmmaker he refuses to romanticize Foley’s fits of self-sabotage and it’s not hard to sense little sighs of “there but for the grace of God...” relief here and there.
I really loved the textures of this picture, all the run-down shotgun shacks and roadside dives. If a movie could smell this one would reek of old cigarette butts and stale beer. There’s a killer cameo by Kris Kristofferson, playing Blaze’s abusive, alkie father lost to dementia in a nursing home yet still carrying a scary spark of meanness in his eyes. But maybe the most offhandedly harrowing moment finds Van Zandt onstage zonked out of his mind, unable to remember his signature song “Pancho and Lefty” without a little help from his pal Blaze. It’s a gently devastating scene of two spiritual brothers locked into mutually assured self-destruction.
The movie meanders, but I think purposefully so. Every once in awhile Hawke’s camera leaves the action to follow a bit player, like a waitress walking outside for a smoke break or a random passerby going about their day. Most movies about showbiz suffer from severe myopia, but “Blaze” constantly puts this small story in the context of a larger world that’s just gonna keep on spinning regardless. A stranger says to Sybil in the final scene, “Sorry about your problems ma’am, but everybody’s got ‘em,” a line so perfectly unsentimental and true it could be from a Blaze Foley song.
Director Ethan Hawke joins the opening night of the film at Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday, Sept. 21.