By Nick Vafiadis
Blaze Foley was a Texas singer-songwriter, an obscure character, even amongst a crowd that is still criminally under the radar. For those who do appreciate Americana folk music, and its wonderfully strange cast of characters, Ethan Hawke’s Blaze will challenge you to process a man who one can only begin to describe as a troubadour and alien. Yet it’s his own moniker that comes closest to getting at his essence. While trying to capture such a force in a film might sound like a losing game, Hawke’s passion project plays with fire in style, subverting the tortured artist trope with a protagonist who compels you to be joyful along with him on his journey through tree houses and dive bars. Foley’s warmth, heat, and searing pain are all immortalized here for audiences, that is if they can handle starring at the sun.
I can think back to family road trips of old, when my dad tried to force Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road into my reluctant, albeit green ears. I used to share the same down-the-nose sentiment about Texas culture that much of my family in California had at the time. Fortunately my dad played into his stubborn Texan stereotype, and continued to bludgeon me with the likes of Lucinda, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clarke, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and so many more. To quote Robert Earl Keen, another Texas troubadour: I found that the words and wailings of these outlaws “Really get down in your blood…” In my teens when I dedicated myself to music and poetry, I returned to my dad’s scratchy C.D.s in awe. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Steve Earle became my saints, their whisky soaked words like scripture for me. It wasn’t until I finally made it back to the cool-water poetry of Lucinda on Car Wheels that I crossed paths with Blaze on the track “Drunken Angel.” From there he limped into my life like an Old Testament prophet, a real “duct tape messiah” as some called him, but not the one I’d expected. Lucinda describes Blaze as a man with “orphan clothes and long dark hair,” a drunken figure whose fans “threw roses at [his] feet, and watch[ed] him pass out on the street.” The song’s lyrics painted in my mind the picture of an outlaw of darkness and depravity. In my youthful naiveté, I was disappointed at first to discover the man behind the veil, who ended up bearing greater likeness to Winnie the Pooh than an angel cast from heaven. My preoccupation with the beautifully hopeless lyrics of Townes Van Zandt made it difficult at first to appreciate an outlaw like Foley, whose songs were filled with pigeons, cheeseburgers, and extra-terrestrials. But just like good poetry, or good anything, Blaze’s work pushes you to expand yourself and get out of your own head to actually do some real thinking.
Having been lucky enough to catch one of the premieres of Blaze at the World-Fest Houston Film Festival, I can say firsthand that Hawke’s film gently cradles Foley’s weird and wonderful spirit and elevates it to a work of fine-art. The great artistic accomplishment of this movie is that it conveys the same loving, larger-than-life charm of Foley that could only previously be known through his songs. Reflecting his work, the film also feels like a series of peeks into strangely sweet and intimate moments. There are no grand sweeping arcs here, and that’s a good thing; at least it made me feel like I was being invited into Foley’s life, rather than simply watching its Hollywood treatment. Hawke stated in a reflection after the screening that he very much intended a “plot-less” feel, at one point even saying that he as a writer has developed “an allergic reaction to plot.” With this loose narrative structure and warm grainy camera work, the movie drives right into your heart, fueled by a hard-earned feeling rather than calculated plot points.
Another element contributing to the realness is the rich source material drawn from the fantastic book written by Foley’s wife titled Living in the Woods in a Tree. In the book, Sybil Rosen chronicles the season of her life spent with Foley, a time when they actually lived in a tree house. Hawke chose to involve her very directly with the film’s direction, adding a deeper level of tenderness and authenticity to the project. Watching these Eden-like scenes of Blaze and Rosen up in the trees, you can really feel and understand why Hawke and Rosen love Foley so much. Foley (played by Ben Dickie) is constantly joking, rambling, cooking, and radiating his one-of-a-kind style that Hawke himself accurately likened to Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus. The honey-sweet warmth drenching the film’s first half makes the second act punch all the more poignant – when we see Foley pushed from his paradise into the seedy world of the Texas music underground. The change in scenery from forests and front porches to dim dives glinting with neon lights makes Foley’s joyfulness glow even more, especially once we see him contrasted against his underworld buddy and fellow troubadour Townes Van Zandt, played by Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan’s guitarist and fellow Texas prodigy). Sexton’s behind-the-scenes involvement with the film’s music sets a pitch-perfect sonic backdrop for these dives as we see the two characters laughing, singing, and screwing up together. Sexton’s own dark charm as Townes perfectly bolsters Dickey’s performance which earned him a special jury prize at The Sundance Film Festival. It’s a performance worthy of the troubadour himself, and Hawke’s film reminded me why I fell in love with Foley in the first place, and the importance of kindling his contagious spark.