Blaze Foley lived a short and eventful life. He had heaps of talent but combine that with the self destructive gene many artists possess and success was beyond his reach.
Ethan Hawke directs this beautiful, tender portrait of an artist who didn’t reach the heights he may, like many others, have attained. In an interview Hawke talked about the desire to make a film about an artist who didn’t make it:
“One of the things about music biopics is that they’re always about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or somebody who made it big, and the subtext of that is always that the making it big is what made their life story worth telling and the great mass of musicians that I’ve met and spent time with in my life have all been, you know almost universally met with indifference. That’s kind of the more normal story in the arts and I, in the back of my mind thought I’d love to make a music movie about a guy who didn’t make it, like that would be true to life. I’d like to see that movie and that intersected one night, I’ve been friends with Mr Dickey here for I don’t know 15 years or so and it was a couple of new years eves ago we were sitting around the fire and Ben started playing Clay Pigeons and the idea I said out loud you should play Blaze Foley in a movie and Ben laughed and I kind of….synapses in the back of my neck exploded and I was like I think I’m supposed to do that.”
This quote really stuck with me in the same way that the film did. It is a film that subtly takes a hold of you and doesn’t let go. I don’t listen to a lot of folk music, I appreciate it as I do all music but it’s never on my playlist so without a recommendation from my dear friend and fellow film lover, the very talented writer, Adam Nightingale, I may never have seen it. I do like Ethan Hawke though, I rate him as an actor and an artist who constantly makes interesting films and always seems to choose from the left of centre which is massively refreshing for a film star.
Let’s talk about Ben Dickey, who plays Blaze Foley in the film for a minute. His performance in this is deserving of all the awards. He is not an actor. I repeat he is not an actor. He is a musician which gives the film an authenticity most music bios lack. He is joined by another musician of massive note, Charlie Sexton who plays Blaze’s friend, real life singer songwriter, Townes Van Zandt. This is one of the main reasons the film hits another level of realism. Ben Dickey clearly has a charisma that shines through the screen and brings Blaze to life and his ability to show the pain is evident.
Blaze lived a short life but his songs touched many. The film opens with a quote by Willie Nelson: “There was a lot to ‘ol Blaze” and Willie recorded a cover of one of Blaze’s songs ‘If I Could only Fly’ with another musical legend Merle Haggard in 1987 so clearly this was an artist with talent and great songwriting skills.
Bring on more tales of the unsung artists. After all there are countless documentaries already out there about the famous and lauded. When I saw the Straight outta Compton film all I wanted to do afterwards was watch an actual documentary about the group to wash the taste of artifice out of my mouth. It wasn’t a bad film it just had too much Hallmark about it, as in the drama was too pointed, it lacked subtlety. This is the issue I usually have with biopics, we already know too much about the subject(s) and have already formed our opinions but if the subject is new to us we can approach the film with a blank slate. Many people love these biopics and I’m definitely not saying that they are wrong, merely that the average biopics are not really my lane.
There is a lovely swan song cameo from Kris Kristofferson playing Blaze’s father and cameos from three greats as the oilmen who sign Blaze to make music for them. Wyatt Russell is great as the the owner of the treehouse that Blaze and Sybil live in for a time but the heart of the film belongs to Alia Shawkat who play the love of Blaze’s life, Sybil Rosen (who incidentally plays her own mother in the film). The film is based on Sybil Rosen’s book ‘Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. Alia gives a performance filled with love, longing, understanding, joy and pain and is wonderful, like Rosen, Shawkat really is the heart of this film.
I think it’s important to wave the flag for films that may have flown under the radar and that is why I’m doing a piece on this one.
See it now on Disney Plus.
Directed by Ethan Hawke
Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Kris Kristofferson and Wyatt Russell.