Ethan Hawke’s Blaze Is a Sweet Southern Biopic

For this biopic on country legend Blaze Foley, director Ethan Hawke approaches the man with the same gentle and rambling wisdom as his songs. More than just a chronology of events, Blaze is a film that takes its time to slow down and appreciate the melodies of a musician who strolled through life in a manner equal parts kind and drunk. He was loving but depressed. He was fragile but could still go on the offensive when he felt he wasn’t good enough. And this film, which shifts between his highs and lows amid stories told by those who knew him best, is one of the most unique movies out there about a musician.

Blaze and Sybil in the bed of a pickup

Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley and Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen. Sundance Selects

Seeing as I’m not that big into country music, Foley (Ben Dickey) was a mystery to me before this film—but it seems that even those who knew didn’t fully grasp all of him either. The film opens with the musician recording in a studio where he continues to ramble on and on about something or the other during the session. This isn’t just him in drunk mode. As we later see in his appearances at bars, he likes to ramble while strumming his guitars, a preshow warm-up that seems to never end at times, sometimes exploding with gentle rage when others talk back.

Most of these events are told through the framing device of a radio interview with Foley’s friends, Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton). Talking to a radio DJ played by Hawke himself, they don’t try to piece together the events that led to Foley’s demise so much as remember the times that stuck out most when hanging around such a talent. These memories paint the picture of a man who wasn’t quite there when it came to being a music star; he came close, like when he almost landed a major record deal but blew it in a manner of drunken haze.

A wedding scene

Blaze and Sybil in their happier moments. Sundance Selects

The one line that sticks out most is when Blaze states his aspirations: “I don’t want to be a star. I want to be a legend.” He tells this to his sweetheart and muse, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), the one woman who not only gets him but views him as a legend, even if he never made it to stardom. In their gentle times together, she suggests that Blaze should move to Austin to make it big as a country musician. Her tenderness gives him the encouragement he needs to push forward, even if it’s towards a darker road that will drive them apart as her abilities as a muse fade and the distance of work rips them apart.

While there are plenty of amazing scenes in the film, as well as some stellar acting in its free-flowing atmosphere, the moments between Blaze and Sybil are ultimately the golden core of the picture. Their time together always seems to drill down deeper into the man and find something more. Many of these scenes see Blaze casually reach for his guitar and gently ease into a quiet and beautiful song while Sybil watches with tender amazement, sometimes tears. Their romance is sweet for how intimate they become and how tearfully they drift in their rising frustrations, as when Blaze reaches his lowest point of scribbling lyrics on the wall with Sybil finding him asleep in the bathtub when he comes home from work.

Blaze and friends on the porch

Blaze having a casual jam session. Sundance Selects

Hawke has made something very personal with Blaze, and it comes across with grace and passion. Everything about it seems to come with a dose of empathy for the musical legend, from his barroom bickering to his quiet country romance and even his eventual demise, which is treated with just the right amount of artistic flair to hit hard without too much overdramatization. I’d never listened to Blaze Foley’s music before but was intrigued enough by the film to give it a listen. “Clay Pigeons” is now an inescapable tune from my ears, an emotional playlist staple.

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