‘Blaze’ is a unique and important biopic we don’t often get to experience
Musical biopics are a staple of Hollywood. “Walk the Line” for Johnny Cash, “Ray” for Ray Charles, “Lady Sings the Blues” for Billie Holiday, “Get On Up” for James Brown, “The Doors” for Jim Morrison, to name just a few, are all movies that chart the rise to stardom. They also tend to chronicle the many pitfalls of reaching the top.
Rarely, however, is there a movie about a musical nobody, a relative failure, a guy who experienced the pitfalls of life without having reached the pinnacle of success. And no wonder. Who’d be interested in a movie about guy who didn’t make it? Ethan Hawke, that’s who.
Hawke has written and directed a new film called “Blaze,” a biopic about country blues singer/songwriter Blaze Foley. If you’ve never heard of him, join the crowd. Even most country music fans don’t know Blaze Foley, who died at 39 in 1989 after a couple of decades of trying to make it big and always failing.
That was part of his appeal to Hawke, who points out that for every musician who makes it, there are hundreds who don’t and he wanted to make a movie about the vast majority of artists who spend their lives making art without commercial success.
Crucially, Hawke also was drawn to his music. Over the almost 30 years since his death, his reputation has slowly grown. Major country stars like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine have all recorded Blaze Foley songs, and a number of posthumous albums have been released.
This must please Foley to no end. In the movie, when his girlfriend/wife asks him if he wants to be a star, he says, in effect, shucks no. “I wants to be a legend.” Well, he never was a star, but he’s beginning that long climb to legendary status and “Blaze” is another step in that direction.
Much of the success of “Blaze” lies in the casting of first-time actor Ben Dickey. Like Foley, he’s a singer/songwriter with deep southern roots (both were born in Arkansas.) Dickey’s completely convincing as the chameleon Foley, who could be the friendliest, most generous and gracious guy one day, and be an ornery drunk and lout the next.
But it’s Dickey’s musicianship and singing voice that impresses the most. He may not sound exactly like Foley, but he’s channeling his spirit in the more than a dozen Foley songs worked into the soundtrack of the film.
As one might expect from a biopic about a commercially unsuccessful drifter, this movie intentionally has no strong narrative arc. It jumbles time frames so as to make points about his character, rather than present a chronology. That makes for a slightly frustrating movie-going experience, but then his life itself was no doubt a slightly frustrating experience too. His death, for instance, is haunting because it was so unnecessary.
“Blaze” smartly opts for an impressionistic look at an enigmatic man. And justifying all the effort poured into this project is his music. It’s made me a fan.
Find more of Tom Tangney’s movie reviews here.