BLAZE— 4 STARS
If you listen to the mainstream country music of today, the disconnect between the storytelling and an overwhelming majority of the performing personas is plain to see and hear. You have too many pop-infused minor millionaires now who can barely play instruments while pretending to sing about the down home blue-collar frolic and melancholy of a demographic they target but do not represent themselves. The messages do not match the messengers and it all looks and sounds disingenuous. Blaze, the story of country/folk singer-songwriter Michael David Fuller, takes audience back to a time where the hardscrabble being plucked through a six-string was the bright side of harder struggles that existed when the microphones were gone.
Director Ethan Hawke invites you to meet a man who lived the real thing and introduces him to you as a burly and wild drunk. Spouting ranting rhetoric more than song while pounding on the drums, the man who went by the stage name Blaze Foley was rabble-rousing enough to get himself kicked out of a recording studio by means of a threatened baseball bat and showers of cursing profanity. Played by newcomer Ben Dickey shadowing his wide smile and polio-induced limp, that opening is a stiff shot of the alcoholic wild side of Fuller, one of the that got the better of him plenty on-stage and off. Fuller’s better side is the story that absolutely sings in Blaze and is told from several perspectives.
Recreating Blaze’s live album recording at the Austin Outhouse and using it as a narrative hub, Fuller’s songs trigger flowing flashbacks from several perspectives. These episodes shed shifting pastoral and ugly light on the man’s life, from his vow of poverty and penchant for duct tape fashion statements to pissing away his shot at a record deal from a trio of oily moneymen (favored cameos from Richard Linklater, Steve Zahn, and Oscar winner Sam Rockwell). Fuller’s past is reminisced by the smoky and seedy Austin performances and also by the posthumous recollections of his friends that witnessed his spectre and heart.
The best song triggers recall the precious time he shared with his inspiring muse and stabilizing anchor, aspiring writer and actress Sybil Rosen played by Arrested Development cast member Alia Shawkat. Lovingly borrowing from Rosen’s memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze, the film gorgeously displays the quiet life the two made for themselves at a crude treehouse cabin near a Georgia artist community. Bonding and eventually marrying, William and Sybil fuel each other as artists before deciding to hitchhike to Austin to peddle his songs and seek out open mics. Other songs echo forward to future testimony being shared by two of Blaze’s outlaw country influences and collaborators, Townes Van Zandt (the film’s music head Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton of Eighth Grade), to an interviewing radio DJ (Hawke himself). They too unspool stories on the personality and talent which define his myth and chronicle the grind of lowlights that made Blaze Foley more of a tortured artist than merely a starving one.
Throughout the ups and downs, Blaze shows Ethan Hawke himself to be quite the storyteller with this personal project to canonize a miniature American myth. He guides first-time feature actor Ben Dickey in an all-encompassing vocal and physical performance that is otherworldly haunting in some moments and winningly warm in others. Exuding all of Fuller’s stature and pain, Dickey gives an award-worthy effort that deserves extreme recognition (one this writer feels can compete with Hawke’s own as an actor in First Reformed earlier this year). Alia Shawkat meshes her own dauntless heart to Dickey’s to create a potent of spirit and woe. Their compassionate chemistry feels as authentic as tender lyrics of memorable music.
The splendid artistry behind the camera respectfully worships the film’s subjects and their portrayals, right on down to Charlie Sexton crocheting ever story yarn. Hawke enlisted his Born to Be Blue cinematographer Steve Cosens to let the camera meander with the music, moving our gaze towards gorgeous montages, slow tracking shots, and impeccable framing. You can downright smell the wood and moss that wash away the bar room swill employed by the debuting production team of designer Thomas Hayek, art director Elissabeth Blofson, and set designer Danielle Dyar. Not a lick of detail is out of place to the period setting. The sheer construction of this serious and serene independent film is primely pristine.
LESSON #1: THE PLIGHT OF THE STARVING ARTIST — Serenading and soul-bearing for two stout hours, Ethan Hawke’s third directorial effort and first in twelve years personifies the quintessential plight of the “starving artist.” Whether they carry a paintbrush or a guitar, these will-they-or-won’t-they tales stir hope and anticipation as nearly irresistible cinematic story material. Real or fictitious, we want to see the Vincent van Goghs, Llewyn Davises, and Blaze Foleys find success. Greater than rooting for an ending of stardom, there is whimsical power to be found in simply reaching emotional fulfillment. See the next two lessons.
LESSON #2: THE HARDER BATTLES OF THE TORTURED ARTIST — Expression and sharing were the bigger goals of Blaze Foley than seeking riches. However, survival by art still requires money. The film likes to state how artists die a little to sell themselves as well as sacrificing happiness and time with significant others to travel and perform. The unseen costs that become the torture are the painful hardships and losses that create the best and most interesting art. Each performance of a song coming from a bad memory keeps that hurt alive more than working to heal it. Blaze puts such a struggle to music and words more interesting and stirring than something like Inside Llewyn Davis, becoming a better tribute to the plight in the process.
LESSON #3: LEGENDS ARE GREATER THAN STARS — In the words of Dickey’s Foley, “stars burn out because they shine for themselves” and “confidence is a consolation prize for knowing you’re alive.” He continues to talk on how legends have longevity because they stand for something that matters. In his eyes, a song can live forever, it just takes time. When alcohol and hard times didn’t muddy the water, the man churned poetry, much of which is becoming more remembered and appreciated today. Let’s see which pop country acts of today can even sniff a shred of reverence like this 30 years after their death.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#727)