Ethan Hawke's movie Blaze takes a lyrical look at a few years in the life of Blaze Foley, a country artist unknown to many but regarded as a songwriting genius by colleagues such as Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and many others.
Undiscerning listeners often did not share this view. Foley was known to brawl with bar patrons who were insufficiently interested in his live performances. He also drank heavily and used drugs, and so was often tagged with the "outlaw country" label.
But his plaintive music tells a different story. He wrote and sang eloquently of love and its longtime companion, loneliness. Blaze touches on the experiences that informed that material. It introduces us to Foley after his troubled upbringing in Texas, where he performed in a family gospel group led by an abusive father (Kris Kristofferson in a brief appearance) who often acted as if he had not read the gospels.
Foley was treated for mental health issues, but by the time we meet him in Blaze, Foley (played by singer Ben Dickey) is reasonably happy, writing songs, living in a cozy forested Eden with girlfriend Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). They get married, but it's a short and unhappy union. Sybil persuades Foley to take his songs to Austin and try them out on the road, but the separation sours the relationship.
Director Hawke takes a decidedly nonlinear approach to the material, sidestepping biopic clichés but allowing his movie to meander sometimes a little too much, and for a little too long (it runs over two hours). His narrative skips around from Foley's happy days in the wilderness to his rough life on the road, the few days leading up to his murder (he is shot trying to stop the theft of a friend's social security checks). We also see re-created snippets of an interview with Foley's friend and fellow troubadour Van Zandt, explaining to a radio host (Hawke) why Foley's music was important. Van Zandt is played by musician Charlie Sexton, who for some reason feels it is important to play the character with a perpetually runny nose.
Anyway, the movie's best window into Foley comes via his music, played expressively by Dickey, whose performance finds humor in Foley's rather sad life, perhaps taking his cue from a Foley lyric – "Sometimes I write happy songs, then some little thing goes wrong."
Soul mate Van Zandt defends himself against the charge that all of his songs are sad: "A couple of them are just hopeless."
Foley's songs had a kind of hope. Even if they were never very commercial (Merle Haggard had a minor hit with "If I Could Only Fly"), he didn't care. He denounced stardom, saying that he'd rather be a legend instead. He has that status among those who knew the genre best, and Blaze gives us at least an inkling of why that's true.