Blaze Foley never wanted to be famous.
As the singer-songwriter tells his wife in the lyrical and melancholy “Blaze,” he didn’t care about becoming a star — he wanted to be a legend, someone worth remembering long after he was gone.
Foley, who died in 1989 at the age of 39 (shot in a dispute with a friend’s son), got his wish on both counts, at least to some degree.
A musician’s musician, Foley was an influential cog in the Texas outlaw music movement, with the likes of Willie Nelson, John Prine and Merle Haggard covering his work. The legend lives on through his music.
And Foley never did become famous, in large part because he was his own worst enemy — getting into bar fights, showing up stumbling drunk for concerts, royally screwing up a potentially lucrative record contract.
Ethan Hawke directed “Blaze,” and co-wrote the screenplay with Sybil Rosen, Foley’s ex-wife and the love of his life. (The movie is based on Rosen’s 2008 memoir.) It’s a carefully crafted, almost reverential character study of man and music Hawke clearly and greatly admires.
In a sepia-toned, patchwork-quilt style that’s perfectly tailored to Foley’s quietly beautiful music and his uniquely poetic way of expressing himself on and off stage, Hawke frames Foley’s story through a trio of storytelling devices:
• An extended radio interview with the legendary musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and a composite character named Zee (Josh Hamilton), who was Foley’s partner in crime and best friend. (Hawke, seen only from behind or out of focus in the middle distance, plays the country music DJ).
• The recording session for Foley’s last album, “Live at the Austin Outhouse,” where the world-weary Foley somehow manages to knock out brilliant performances of some two dozen songs in front of a tiny and indifferent audience.
• Flashback sequences to Foley’s loving but tumultuous relationship with Sybil (Alia Shawkat), including their early days living in a Georgia treehouse, Sybil doing everything she can to support Blaze’s career, financially and emotionally, and the eventual demise of the relationship, due to Foley’s mercurial, booze-soaked, self-destructive behavior.
Folk-rock musician and untested actor Ben Dickey plays Foley, and it’s a magnificent and natural performance. Dickey has a hulking presence and comes across as a gentle, contemplative bear (with the exception of his drunken outbursts). When he cuddles up with Sybil, an aspiring actress, we can see the bliss in his eyes as he speaks to her in soft and loving tones, his words flowing like free-form poetry.
And Dickey’s performances of Foley’s songs are pure magic. The moment Foley begins strumming his guitar, it’s as if all time stops around him, and we’re instantly drawn to the music.
Another musician, Charlie Sexton, is equally natural as Townes Van Zandt, whose own demons of addiction caused his early death. And Alia Shawkat delivers a deeply moving performance as Sybil, who stays with Foley for as long as anyone could possibly expect her to, and then stays with him just a little bit longer because that’s how much she loves him.
At times “Blaze” is devastatingly sad, as when a drunken Blaze laments he had enough love in him to produce some pretty good songs — but he didn’t have enough love to have a family with Sybil. There are some moments of pure joy as well, e.g., when Blaze and Sybil get married in the woods.
Sadly, the story of Blaze Foley — the story of a great talent who couldn’t get out of his own way and died much too soon — is all too familiar, and we’ve seen it play out in dozens of movies.
Still, Hawke tells Foley’s story with heart and style, and that’s going to make Blaze Foley even more of a legend, and deservedly so.
Sundance Selects presents a film directed by Ethan Hawke and written by Hawke and Sybil Rosen, based on Rosen’s book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual content and drug use). Running time: 128 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.