The life of Texas singer/songwriter Blaze Foley isn’t that complicated, but he left behind a stash of largely unknown songs that were discovered and heralded by certain outlaw country heroes, like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. He has a tremendous live album, recorded at the Outhouse in Austin, that sounds like it was made accidentally yet still evokes melancholy and other bittersweet emotions to such a degree, you can’t help but fall under its spell. There’s nothing remarkable about him on the surface, thought, which makes the fact that actor Ethan Hawke has directed and co-written (with Foley’s widow, Sybil Rosen, on whose memoir the film is based) a film about his short life all the more extraordinary.
Using the Outhouse show as a framing device for this patchwork quilt of a movie, Hawke strings together his biography as something that is more a collection of memories than a straightforward narrative, not unlike what he did with his previous features, Chelsea Hotel and The Hottest State. Using the setlist from the concert, Hawke draws connections between the lyrics and moments in Foley’s life that roughly correspond to what he’s singing about. He also interweaves a radio interview singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt (played by singer Charlie Sexton) gave about Foley (newcomer, singer Ben Dickey) after his death, that was more about heightening the legend than being completely factual. Blaze is a film in which the truth and the myth come together because it’s a far more interesting story, and there’s nothing wrong with that when the point of the film isn’t the life but the music.
Foley always seemed on the brink of breaking through, but his drinking kept success at arm’s length. His early adult life was spent with Rosen (the absolutely luminous Alia Shawkat), and the couple happily lived (literally) in a giant treehouse, where they relaxed and he wrote music that was so good, the treehouse didn’t seem big enough to hold them. He got just enough confidence to take his music to audiences, who seemed to respond as often as they didn’t. When he was on, there was nothing better, and he even signed a record deal that never came to fruition because of his erratic and self-destructive behavior.
The often-haunting cinematography by Steve Cosens blended with Jason Gourson’s masterful editing weaves together three periods of Foley’s life plus the Van Zandt interview into something that can probably best be described as the perfect Texas story of music, alcohol, and a man with a heart too big for this world. Foley may not have been representative of every Texan, but he did seem to embody some of the qualities of what they aspire to be. Like most things in Foley’s life, this version of his story begins and ends with the music, which continues to have an impact on those who discover it. Even if you have no knowledge of Foley or interest in country music, Blaze will burrow deep into your heart and mind, and linger there like a catchy song.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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