Ethan Hawke has been having quite a year. He was brilliant in First Reformed, one of the year’s best films, and the played an entirely different character in the low-key Juliet Naked. Both these roles are correctives to Hawke’s career: his “loose” acting style is in fact tightly controlled, and Juliet Naked represents him shaking the slacker persona that’s been following him since Reality Bites. Speaking of that wretched 90s film, Hawke’s first job as a director was the memorable music video for Lisa Loeb’s “Stay.” He has a knock for filming music, and his recent film as a director – the biopic Blaze – ably distills the impulses from his entire career. On a surface level, the film is a musician biopic, except it biopic traditions.
Blaze Foley was a singer-songwriter based out of Austin, Texas. He lived as an “outlaw” – a reputation he actively cultivated – and yet he was authentic in a way that few musicians ever dare. Newcomer Ben Dickey plays Foley as a larger than life figure, a hillbilly philosopher who values his independence and integrity. One of the intriguing things about the film is how Hawke – who co-write the screenplay with Blaze’s ex-lover Sybil Rosen – is how you’re never quite sure which Blaze you’ll get. Sometimes he is a no-good drunk, the kind who free associates because he lacks the wherewithal for a coherent thought. Then there are other moments where Blaze is perfectly lucid, and his turns of phrase are downright poetic. Dickey’s performance is seemingly effortless – sort of like Hawke sometimes can be – to the point where you might forget he is acting.
The key difference between Blaze and most musician biographies is how Hawke jumps around with his chronology. There are three main time periods: Blaze’s idyllic romance with Sybil (Alia Shawkat), a later period where he sets out as a musician, and posthumous period where two friends (Josh Hamilton and Charlie Sexton) talk about him fondly. Hawke films each period with wide angle lenses, deliberately blurring the corners of the frame so many sequences look like old photos.
His use of color also reflects that sensibility: cinematographer Steve Cosens creates a film of sun-kissed yellows, except when Blaze is in performing. Only then does the color shift toward crimson red, a reflection of his passion and how his shows could tilt toward anger and violence. Hawke dwells on the happier moments, like when Blaze and Sybil sing “Oo De Lally” in the back of a truck. There is a lost of jump around, so it takes a while for the freewheeling approach to find its charm, but then it’s infectious.
On top of all this, Blaze oozes credibility. The key supporting performance is from Sexton; he plays Townes Van Zandt – they share an uncanny semblance – and Sexton is a real musician/songwriter who plays in Bob Dylan’s touring group. When Blaze meets Sybil’s parents, the actual Sybil plays her mother. All these details are not necessary to enjoy the film, and yet they illustrate Hawke’s greater purpose. Blaze is a footnote in the annals of American songwriting, but his friends and family were devoted to him, thanks in no small part to his innate talent and his unusual worldview.
So many musicians and bands are eager to look “cool,” to create a persona and reputation that helps sell records and tickets. In his short life, Blaze eschewed such pretense and lived the life that’s usually cultivated by gushy magazine writers. Anyone familiar with Hawke, who never quite fit into the mainstream or indie circles, should see why Blaze appeals to him. But a good subject is only a fraction of a film’s worth. As Blaze reaches its tragic final minutes, it is clear Blaze is given the treatment he would want and deserve.