Blaze: A soft, touching movie about a not-so-soft forgotten country outlaw

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C-plus

Before watching Blaze, the biopic about the late, almost country-star Blaze Foley, directed and co-written by Ethan Hawke, it’s worth watching the Foley episode of Mike Judge’s animated series about country outlaws, Tales from the Tour Bus.

(Season 1, episode 8, if you subscribe to Crave TV in Canada, Cinemax in the U.S.).

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

In the words of the people who knew him, Foley was a man who, though inwardly sensitive, was outwardly so menacing, he scared bikers. He would spit at people he disliked, and could nail someone from across a room. When he met his fiance’s middle-class Jewish parents, he wore an IUD as an earring. He was a blind-drunk cohort of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and wrote a lot of songs, a fraction of which were recorded, and some that were covered, including, “If I Could Only Fly,” by Merle Haggard.

He also was obsessed with duct tape, and though the movie does portray his coffin as being covered in it, it neglects to show he also festooned his clothes with duct tape and even made cowboy boots out of it.

That, in 20 minutes of animated escapades and maybe exaggerated reminiscence, is more colour and insight than all the overthinking in Hawke’s film about a big drunk lovable song-writing Teddy bear who happens to be named Blaze Foley.

The real Blaze Foley

The real Blaze Foley

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not a good idea to know who Blaze Foley was going in.

Skip over that, and Blaze does manage to tell a convincing story about how creative genius tragically often doesn’t translate into fortune and fame. The artistic urge obviously means a lot to Hawke (his earlier directorial works include a thoughtful doc on the classical pianist Seymour Bernstein). And, to the handful who know who Blaze Foley was (most of them live in Texas), just the fact that he could finally find some posthumous fame is reason enough to applaud the film.

Even if he is a pretty soft version of the real Foley (and some might argue that’s irrelevant, since the real Foley is not well-known), burly newcomer Ben Dickey does credibly perform and bring presence to his story – particularly in the first half of the film that’s devoted to both his music and his relationship to his performance-artist wife Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). That this half seems the most genuine isn’t surprising, since Rosen co-wrote the film based on her memoirs.

But Rosen wasn’t there for the down-and-dirty Foley, the guy who is said to have sold the same guitar to four different people and who was banned from the stage of nearly every bar in Austin. Does it seem like I was expecting a much grittier film?

The presentation of the film is awkward. The initial framing is that it’s a telling of Foley’s life in a radio interview with Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and another Foley friend Zee (Josh Hamilton). The set-up seems to be a promotional interview for Van Zandt’s new album, with the deejay (Hawke) asking about the song “Blaze’s Blues.” The indication is that the two spend the next hour answering that one question, which would make most interviewers sorry they asked.

At other times, the story is told as a wraparound to a sparsely-attended bar performance by Foley that’s being recorded for an album. A mention of a song will bring on a memory, etc.

There are some choice cameos in Blaze, including Kris Kristofferson as Foley’s sumbitch of an abusive father, suffering dementia in his final days. And Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Richard Linklater make a fun trio of obnoxious Texas oilmen who sign him to a vanity record label, his only record contract.

At more than two hours, Blaze is a meandering tale of genius and futility, tender, but overlong and wallowing, given that we know how it ends.

Blaze. Directed by Ethan Hawke. Co-written by Hawke and Sybil Rosen. Starring Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat and Charlie Sexton. Opens Friday, December 14 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Halifax.