Tender mercies: Ethan Hawke directs moving tribute to Texas musician Blaze Foley

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

When we hear the term “biopic,” we know what to expect by now: an actor looking for a short cut to the Oscar podium by performing in a two-hour movie loaded with montages, prologues, monologues, epilogues, flashbacks — everything in the kitchen sink. Finally, cap off the climax of the film with a scene of the main character melodramatically saying the title of the film — the equivalent of Gary Oldman spitting, “This is our darkest hour,” before walking away down a dark hallway.

Ethan Hawke seen at the 2016 Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York. Hawke co-wrote and directed, ‘BLAZE,’ which was filmed in Baton Rouge and is opening this weekend in Dallas. Courtesy of Evan Agostin / INVISION via ASSOCIATED PRESS.

If these are our criteria, then Ethan Hawke’s BLAZE is not a biopic.

The film may be based on the life of late Texas blues and folk singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (played in the film by newcomer Ben Dickey), but you never get the sense that the film’s purpose is for Hawke (who co-wrote and directed BLAZE) to make a cookie-cutter movie about a historical person. Instead, he uses the titular musician as a launch point to tell a more profound story about inner turmoil, complex relationships, love, music and the sacrifices we make to carve out a name for ourselves.

Similar to Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL, BLAZE is a film that hums its own tune and breaks away from traditional storytelling techniques.

“Biopics, generally, hyperbolize one person. They often have a great central performance, but aren’t movies worth revisiting,” Hawke said on a promotional tour stop in Dallas. “There’s this inherent lie that any one of us is any more special than another, or that our lives have a beginning, middle and end that makes narrative sense. When looking at [Foley], we could see that he’s all around us. So, I began to wonder about the story of [Foley’s muse, artist Sybil Rosen, who also co-wrote the film with Hawke] and how she felt when she heard a specific song of his at certain time in her life.”

Hawke saw the easy avenue to tell Foley’s story, starting with his upbringing and concluding with his death by gunshot. However, Hawke saw another path — a more unabridged and unconventional one — to a much larger story that not only allows the audience to understand the man who was Blaze Foley but imparts some wisdom to carry home.

“I was trying to give a circular sense to the story as opposed to a straight line. It would almost be like a song: The way verses go into choruses, and then hitting a bridge and back to a verse. You’re protected [by the repetition] and aren’t lost, and I think that’s what the movie is about,” Hawke said.

BLAZE avoids the trappings of true-story tales by cleverly weaving together three storylines at three different points in history. This includes the last night of Foley’s life (when he’s recording a live album at an Austin bar) and segments from his relationship with Rosen (played by ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Alia Shawkat).

The key storyline, on the other hand, is a radio interview (listen for Hawke’s voice as the host) with Foley’s friends and collaborators Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton of BOYHOOD) and Zee (Josh Hamilton of EIGHTH GRADE) two years after Foley died. This particular framing allows the two men to reminisce about Foley and allows the audience to better connect.

There’s a scene in the film when Van Zandt shares that it takes “blowing everything off” to find success. The scene was based on a real interview with Van Zandt that Hawke saw when he was 23. Van Zandt’s words upset Hawke at the time and made him wonder if it took that sort of dedication. A year later, however, Hawke met filmmaker Richard Linklater, who had a different way of thinking.

“Linklater takes good care of himself and wants to make more movies than anyone has ever made. He has a lot of joy in his life. He’s a great dad and cares for his community. It’s figuring out what that balance is for all of us. If you don’t have balance in your life, then all you have is your work, work that is empty. I think I put that interview in BLAZE because [Foley] never found that balance,” Hawke said.

Ben Dickey and Ethan Hawke on the set of Ethan Hawke’s BLAZE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

The structure of the film draws many comparisons to Linklater, who Hawke has worked with frequently, in films such as the BEFORE trilogy, THE NEWTON BOYS, TAPE and BOYHOOD. Many of Linklater’s films work as studies of time, and you can feel Hawke’s film cutting from the same fabric.

“There’s no way for me to separate Linklater’s influence on me. I’ve spent a long time with him in rehearsals, writing rooms and on set with him. He’s made a significant impact on the way I think about movies,” Hawke said. “BLAZE is also a study of time. I built the script around [Foley’s songs], because they operate as fence posts. The songs don’t change over time, but our relationships to them do.”

Hawke brought up a great quote from novelist Tom Robbins: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” meaning the facts of your childhood stay the same, but you have the power to change your relationship to them.

“One moment you’re hearing a song when it’s first being written, and then another moment you’re seeing [Foley] playing it when he can barely remember the words and dreaming about a happier time. Then there’s a third moment when a friend is singing the song two years after Foley died. That’s time,” Hawke said.

Hawke pieces together an impressive and thought-provoking tribute with a Texas-sized heart and the kind of performances that awards are made for. Even when you know what’s coming, BLAZE haunts you like a classic country song. It’s a spellbinder.

BLAZE opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas. Ethan Hawke and star Ben Dickey will be doing multiple post-screening Q&As at both theaters. Check angelikafilmcenter.com and landmarktheatres.com for screening times and details.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.