Blaze Foley Redux: A Reluctant and Unconventional Film Review
Up until this past January I doubt that I’ve actually sat in a movie theater more than dozen times in the past six years. It’s not because I don’t enjoy watching films, but here in New York where tickets are usually around $15, I’m required to hop onto a train and subway to get into the city and it ends up blowing up my budget when you throw in lunch or dinner at the Saigon Shack on MacDougal and a side trip to The Strand for book shopping.
I tend to get my film fix on my 60-inch screen, using Netflix, Amazon Prime, or one of the premium cable channels. Earlier this year that changed with MoviePass, the $9.99-per-month subscription service that allowed me to go out and catch a different show 30 times in 30 days. It was hardly a surprise that this was not a sustainable business model, and this summer the company crashed, burned, and resurrected itself on life support, now offering only three hand-picked films per month. But for a good six months I devoured every big budget, indie, and foreign film I could possibly see, and I’m proud to say that not once have I succumbed to the concession stand.
On the first day of its release in the city a few weeks ago, I went to see Blaze, the biopic on the life of Mr. Foley that was brought to the screen by Ethan Hawke, who both directed it and co-wrote the screenplay with Sybil Rosen, whose memoir was the basis for this biopic. In the film she is portrayed by Alia Shawkat, the love interest in film parlance, while Ben Dickey – a musician with no previous acting experience – sparkles and shines as Foley. His performance is so strong that I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for some award or another. Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, a friend and alcohol-fueled co-conspirator/prankster of Foley, acts as a narrator of sorts, conversing with interviewer Hawke, who remains offscreen, as Josh Hamilton, playing a composite musician by the name of Zee, sits uncomfortably and listens to what amounts to a bunch of tall tales. You also have a few interesting cameos such Kris Kristofferson, Gurf Morlix, and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra.
If you’re a country or roots music fan, whether you’re a longtime listener or new to Foley’s music, Ben Dickey’s live performances are so personal and spot-on that it might be difficult for some to separate the actor from the subject. And the story line, an odd duck country singer-songwriter whose relationship and music career are derailed by bad luck and bad choices, ends tragically. Because I have no knowledge or skill sets when it comes to writing a film review or critique, all I can add is that I simply loved it and at the end I just wanted to stay and watch it again. And to be honest, the only reason for this week’s column is because I’ve yet to see a mention of it here on the No Depressionsite and frankly, that makes no sense.
It was No Depression‘s co-founder Peter Blackstock who first introduced me to the name Blaze Foley when he mentioned him with reverence almost 20 years ago in the original periodical. In September 2006 (issue #65) they published what is likely the definitive and best article ever written on Foley. Joe Nick Patoski is the author of The Fall and Rise of Blaze Foley,and although the print version may have faded over time, the story remains available to read right here on this website (click the title to get you there). One note of caution and sorrow: when No Depression migrated the original website to the current platform, the formatting was lost. But try not to let the giant word jumble deter you, as it’s a great article written by one of the best. It reminds you why the original No Depression magazine was so relevant and vital to the times.
Since you might have been expecting to read an actual review, I don’t want to disappoint. So I’ll drop in a couple of excerpts from other publications, and mention that this is a “small film,” which means at present it’s only been shown at film festivals and distributed to 43 theaters. Pulling in less than half a million dollars this month, it’s destined to make its journey to the world of streaming. Don’t miss it. Perhaps it’ll become a cult classic, an Americana musical, sort of like what Rocky Horror Picture Showdid for fishnet stockings and toast.
“Maybe it’s a stretch to make a biopic about a singer best known for a song another singer wrote about him. Or maybe that’s what biopics are for: to throw light onto figures who’ve been unfairly cast in the shadows. The better biopics, anyway, and Ethan Hawke’s ‘Blaze’ is one of them, even if a listen to Blaze Foley’s music hints at much that Hawke doesn’t quite capture about the man. Ben Dickey, an Arkansas-born rocker, plays the title character and matches Foley in bearlike heft and wayward eccentricity; the performance won a special jury award at Sundance this year.”
— Ty Burr, Boston Globe
“The great singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt used to say there are two kinds of music: the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Both are on full, florid display in ‘Blaze,’ an absorbing, illuminating film about the late musician Blaze Foley. With his bearlike physicality and unstudied air of emotional honesty and vulnerability, Ben Dickey commands the screen from start to finish in ‘Blaze,’ making even the film’s most self-pitying asides not just tolerable but also full of genuine regret.”
— Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
“Cinematographer Steve Cosens frames shots in ways that seem loose but capture both the grain of a place and its aura, how it seeps into people. Throughout the film, Hawke keeps returning to Foley’s last show at Austin’s legendary Outhouse bar, where he’s at the end of his tether but not — even whiskey-addled — his talent.
“Hawke’s syntax — the jumps from the Austin Outhouse concert to Van Zandt’s radio interview to life in the tree house and back — muddles the momentum. He even inexplicably jumps forward and back withinscenes. He’s like a film student fiddling around in the editing room, and he makes a hash of the events leading up to Foley’s violent death … for all his silly directorial stutter steps: he makes you believe in the power of music to summon ghosts.”
— David Edelstein, NPR
Outside of the film trailer at the beginning of the column, all of the video clips here are Blaze Foley and not Ben Dickey. They come from a variety of sources, and I’d be remiss to post this without acknowledging a previous film documentary produced and directed by Kevin Tripplet. Shot over an almost ten-year period, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah was shown via non-traditional theatrical exhibition with Gurf Morlix in 2011. (It had an early showing at SXSW in 2009.) The DVD is available for purchase at Lost Art Records, which also is home to the six Foley albums that are in print. You can find Morlix’s tribute album, Blaze Foley’s 113thWet Dream, on his website and read an interview with him about the film and his album back from 2011 in The Austin Chronicle.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.