Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in 'Blaze'

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze

My first thought after watching Blaze was, why? Why these characters? Why this movie? What attracted director, Ethan Hawke, to this story?

It’s not that it’s a bad story. I’m just not sure it’s a particularly memorable one.

Michael Fuller was a B+ roadhouse singer-songwriter in the 1980s who recorded and performed under the name Blaze Foley (Benjamin Dickey). The movie is based on a postmortem biography written by his ex-wife, Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). While Foley enjoyed some success during his lifetime as a peripheral figure with the alt-country community in Austin, Texas, the most important recordings of his songs were made by other artists after his death, as were the songs written about him.

Granted, those recordings were made by a Hall of Fame pantheon of outlaw-country artists; Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt among them. We can throw in a few other alt-country tinged heavy-hitters like John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Kings of Leon. With fans like that it would be ridiculous to suggest that Foley wasn’t a significant talent.  

Still, I think a movie about any of those folks might be more compelling. I can’t help but wonder if Blaze wasn’t filmed primarily because Foley’s dead, and there’s a book. I would’ve been inclined to wait for the A+ version.

Movie bios about musicians tend to follow a rigid formula; traumatic childhood\wayward youth, our star leaves home for reckless adventures (each documented by one of his\her biggest hits), a romantic interest enters the mix, followed by sex and drugs, and wrecked careers and relationships. Ultimately, this all leads to redemption or death or both. It’s such an enduring recipe for hallowed cinematic comfort food Walk Hard; The Dewey Cox Story followed it verbatim to create one of my favorite movie parodies.

Credit Hawke with at least attempting to modify the rigidity. All the standard elements are present, but the Jenga-like way in which they’re tied together makes the story feel less like a forced march to a foregone conclusion. The problem is that although the movie’s construction gives it a fresh feel, some of the formula was abandoned too aggressively.

When the father in Walk The Line tells his young son “It should have been you” rather than his golden boy brother who died, we understand the demons that haunt Johnny Cash. When dad periodically returns to remind us what a bastard he is, we embrace his son. Ray Charles’ flashbacks to the childhood drowning of his brother and best friend accomplishes a similar task in Ray.

As a child, Foley performed in a Texas gospel group with his mother and siblings. There’s a powerful scene where he visits his father (Kris Kristofferson), who’s clearly suffering advanced dementia, in a nursing home. Blaze and his sister sing a lovely gospel duet that reduces the old man to muttering “beautiful, beautiful” through his tears. While there’s an allusion to dad being an abusive drunk, you can’t help but have a little sympathy for him. And sister is just a quirky angel. You can see there was at least some love and joy in that family.

Foley’s relationship with Sybil is portrayed as about as affectionate as a union can be.  For God sake, they live in a tree-house in the woods and don’t do much of anything besides party with friends, play music, smoke dope and screw. Their marriage disintegrates mostly because Foley’s a dick.

Remember Alice’s Restaurant where the extras spend the entire movie standing around talking? I thought about that watching Blaze. Our hero is surrounded by loving, talented friends and family who talk and talk about all things real and metaphysical, but he’s relentlessly unhappy anyway.

What’s the source of Foley’s demons? His father was an asshole?  My dad could be a jerk and I have friends who wish their fathers were good enough to be elevated to the level of asshole. None of us went from gentle, goodhearted and kind (which Foley definitely was by turns) to abusive, drunk and despairing, which is where he ends up.

If the argument is you need to be a desperate drunk to write a great country song, I’m not convinced. If the contention is that one has to suffer to be a true artist, kiss my ass. Pain can inspire singular works of art. So can love and happiness. Blaze never adequately explains why we’re supposed to revere Foley simply because he wrote a handful of decent songs.  Maybe the book does.

 

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.