Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” is as melancholic and poignant as you can expect from a movie based on the life and career of a rather obscure real-life country musician. While thankfully free of genre conventions and clichés, the movie freely rolls around here and there along with its hero for exploring his life, talent, and personality, and its distinctive mood and music will linger on you for a long time after it is over.
The hero of the movie is Blaze Foley (1949-1989), who has not been known well even after his death but has been fondly remembered by his many contemporaries including Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt, who was one of his close friends and was also a major influence on his music. Although a number of his notable songs appearing in the movie are not that famous, “If Could Only Fly” got more exposure in public through Merle Haggard’s 2000 album “If I Could Fly”, and “Clay Pigeons” also drew attentions when it was covered by John Prine on his Grammy Award-winning 2005 album “Fair and Square”.
The adapted screenplay by Hawke and his co-adapter Sybil Rosen, which is based on Rosen’s memoir “Based on Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze”, frequently moves among three different time points throughout the film. While showing us how Blaze (Ben Dickey) meets Rosen (Alia Shawkat) by coincidence and then falls in love with her, the movie often intercuts that part with his last music performance at some shabby Texan bar, and it also has several radio interview scenes featuring Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), who is another close friend/colleague of Blaze.
The scenes between Blaze and Rosen are presented with lots of intimacy and tenderness. They happen to encounter each other at a small artists’ community located somewhere in Georgia, and it does not take much time for them to become interested in each other as they get to know each other more. At one point, they come to hide together in a small dark place after one funny happening, and we can clearly sense the growing attraction between them even though we barely see their faces in the darkness.
Blaze and Rosen soon come to live together in their small cabin located in the middle of a forest, and the movie observes how they inspire each other as fellow artists. While Rosen becomes Blaze’ muse, he encourages her aspiration of being an actress, and they feel happy and content whenever they leisurely spend time together in their solitary residence. They eventually get married not long after meeting Rosen’s Jewish parents during another humorous scene in the film, and then Blaze decides to go further with his music career as supported by Rosen. They move around here and there as he takes the first major forward steps for his music career, and there is a nice scene where he plays music for his aging father at a nursing home.
However, of course, Rosen comes to see the less pleasant sides of her husband as he continues to do more tours around the country. While frequently drinking a lot, he also behaves like a willful jerk at times, and that certainly frustrates Rosen a lot. She tries to stand by her man as much as she can, but, sadly, there inevitably comes a point where she and Blaze come to realize that their relationship cannot be supported by their love anymore.
The trajectory of Blaze and Rosen’s relationship is melancholically juxtaposed with the scenes showing his last performance. Looking older and shaggier in his exhausted appearance, he keeps playing music in front of a few audiences, and cinematographer Steve Cosens’ camera fluidly moves around here and there as paying some attention to Blaze’s audiences from time to time. Filled with dark red lights, these scenes clearly imply Blaze’s despaired status, and we later get a sad, painful moment when he bitterly expresses his sadness and desperation while sitting alone on a street. Ben Dickey, a non-professional actor who is also a country musician, is simply devastating in that moment, and his unadorned natural performance, which deservedly received the Grand Jury Prize when the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, is certainly one of the memorable performances of last year.
Dickey is also complemented well by the warm, lively presence of Alia Shawkat, a talented actress who drew my attention for the first time via her supporting role in TV sitcom series “Arrested Development”. Right from their first scene, Dickey and Shawkat are effortless with considerable chemistry between them on the screen, and they are especially wonderful during the scenes where Blaze plays his music and Rosen attentively listens to it with genuine affection.
Hawke assembled a number of interesting cast members around Dickey and Shawkat. While Charlie Sexton is often amusing in his bemused appearance, Josh Hamilton, who was terrific as the caring father of the heroine of “Eighth Grade” (2018), functions well as an effective counterpart during his scenes with Sexton, and Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Kris Kristofferson, Wyatt Russell, and Richard Linklater are also enjoyable in their small supporting roles.
In conclusion, “Blaze”, which is Hawke’s third feature film (he previously directed “Chelsea Walls” (2001) and “The Hottest State” (2006) in addition to documentary film “Seymour: An Introduction” (2014)), is a solid movie commendable for its mood, music, storytelling, and performance. You may feel impatient with its slow narrative pacing, but it is a rewarding experience on the whole, and you will agree to Hawke’s admiration and affection toward his human subject.