Ethan Hawke has been directing films for a few years now, but nothing comes close to his portrait of Americana/country music legend Blaze Foley in the film, Blaze. It’s a tiny film, but such a personal and beautiful one. As someone who’s lived their whole life here in Austin, I’ve been waiting for a film like Blaze for as long as I can remember. A film that captures the spirit and soul of this crowd of country musicians like Blaze, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and so on (it should be noted that Steve Earle is not a character in the film). While the film wasn’t shot in Texas per se, Hawke does such an amazing job at capturing that era of country music in my hometown, and from one Austin-born individual to another in Ethan Hawke, I thank him immensely for this film. Blaze is one of the very best films of 2017, and of this year’s SXSW.
The film tells the life and times of Blaze Foley, played by Ben Dickey, through some interesting storytelling techniques. Instead of a standard biopic, Hawke captures Blaze performing at the Austin Outhouse close to the eve of his death, years later when Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Josh Hamilton as a fellow musician are being interviewed about Blaze’s life, and that sets-up the backstory for Blaze and his life. But it instead tells the story of his life with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), Blaze’s ex-wife who wrote a memoir about their life that Hawke adapted with Rosen herself for this film.
The film feels a little more emotional and raw in that sense, as the film feels much more personal and real since the basis of the film is the relationship between Blaze and Cybill, and the downfall of their relationship is just heartbreaking to watch unfold. And that’s a testament to both of the actors, Shawkat and Dickey, who are both incredible in the film. This is Shawkat’s best performance to date, and Dickey, who’s already a respected and talented musician in his own right, is fantastic in as the titular folk hero. He transitions so well from an easy-going musician to one who’s tormented and full of demons from his past. Very few actors could be able to bring that kind of tenacity to a performance like this, and Dickey is absolutely incredible in the film.
Along with Dickey, one of the highlights of the film is Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt. Like Dickey, Sexton is a highly respected and sought-after musician, especially here in Austin (when he’s not doing solo work he’s been touring with Bob Dylan for the last 20-something years or so). Sexton played Hawke’s roommate in the film Boyhood, and his performance as the legendary musician, albeit not a huge role, is nothing short of incredible. Sexton’s singing voice doesn’t sound like Townes’s, but he captures everything else about the Ft. Worth-born musician from his look, his struggle with drugs and alcohol, his attitude and his dark sense of humor. If Hawke was willing to do a companion film to Blaze where it was a biopic on the life of Townes Van Zandt (his life story is a heartbreaking and fascinating one, and one that’s overdue for a proper big-screen adaptation), I feel that Hawke could do such an amazing job with his story since he handled Blaze’s story with such grace.
As a fan of this music and a lifelong resident of this city, I absolutely loved Blaze. Ethan Hawke’s love-letter to Blaze and his music is made more poetic by his focus of it being around his relationship with Sybil, and the heartbreak that came with that relationship as it came crumbling apart. This is one of the greatest music biopics of not just our generation, but I’d go as far to say of all-time. It’s very tough to capture the heart and soul of any artist on film, but Hawke was able to get behind the legend and myth of Blaze Foley, and present him as a man who had demons following him all the way to his death. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking, and stunning piece of independent cinema, and one that is one of the great films of not only 2018, or this film festival, but of this decade. If you love Townes Van Zandt or Blaze Foley, you’re going to love this film.