(director/writer: Ethan Hawke; screenwriter: Sybil Rosen/based on the memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley” by Sybil Rosen; cinematographer: Steve Cosens; editor: Jason Gourson; music: Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt; cast: Benjamin Dickey (Blaze Foley), Alia Shawkat (Sybil Rosen), Max Covert (Rabbi), Charlie Sexton (Townes Van Zandt), Josh Hamilton (Zee), Ethan Hawke(Radio DJ), James Ourso (Pool Player #2), Jenn Lyon (Cinnamon), David Kallaway (Dennis), Ritchie Montgomery (T.J.), Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell, Kris Kristofferson (Blaze’s abusive drunken institutionazedfather); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jake Seal, Ethan Hawke, John Sloss, Ryan Hawke; Sundance Selects; 2018)
“A gem, giving us more than just a biopic but capturing the outsider’s character for better or worse.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Actor-turned-director Ethan Hawke (“Seymour: An Introduction”) directs with keen observation skills this heartbreaking lively country music biopic on the self-destructive Blaze Foley (née Michael David Fuller). He’s the unsung songwriter/singer legend of the Texas Outlaw Movement (made up of country music stars like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt (an excellent performance by the Austin guitarist Charlie Sexton of the deceased in 1996 great country songwriter, in a radio interview scene of him talking glowingly about Blaze’s greatness shortly after his death) and Kris Kristofferson (who brilliantly plays his abusive, drunken, institutionalized father). The carefully edited film collects all the deceased musician’s music and puts together vignettes of beautifully realized moments of his life in a random order.
The result is a gem, giving us more than just a biopic but capturing the outsider’s character for better or worse. It aims less for accuracy than to tell a mythical story about Blaze. When you hear him sing, you know his pain is real and his songs are authentic. Blaze Foley (Benjamin Dickey, in a terrific performance by the musician from Arkansas) is a Texan, who early on traveled with his singing family on the road. He aspired to be a blues singer. The narrative, co-written by Austin native Hawke and Sybil Rosen (the film is based on her memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”, as a former wife who remained his friend after the divorce), takes us on Blaze’s strange journey from being a handyman to getting a recording contract to his downfall. It veers back and forth through different time periods in Blaze’s life, as it fills us in on the music he created during the time frame it covers. The red-neck critter is someone who is generally melancholy, mumbles (sounding like Tom Waits), walks with a limp because of childhood polio, has a drug addiction, drinks like a fish and is a gentle giant with a mean side. He also had the odd notion to use duct tape on the tips of his boots to mute the sound. His marriage and divorce to the petite, Jewish, aspiring actress Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), his opposite in personality, tells us a lot about the darker nature of Blaze, and his drunken ways and bar fights that curbed his better poetic side. The film is divided into three sections, with the most endearing section involving Foley’s love affair with Sybil and life with her in a cabin in the woods of Georgia (before moving to Austin). It’s Blaze’s inability to deal with his inner-demons that pushed him to be a burn out after getting a recording contract and then singing to almost empty houses at a dive bar called the Austin Outhouse. Hawke tries to put us in Blaze’s shoes to paint an honest portrayal of a great talent mired in an emotionally downer trip, who was more interested in becoming a legend than a star.
He died too soon (killed by a gunshot in 1989, in an Austin bar, from the son of a friend, at the age of 39), but even if an obscure figure he still made his mark in the country music world with his buddy country music peers and a few loyal fans. His songs like “Clay Pigeons,” If I Could Only Fly,” and “Picture Cards Can’t Picture You,” give you a good idea of his immense talent. Cameos from Sam Rockwell, Richard Linklater, and Steve Zahn as smarmy small-time record executives only further enriches this highly recommended film.
REVIEWED ON 9/26/2018 GRADE: A