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Louisiana International Film Festival: Blaze Movie Review

Louisiana International Film Festival: Blaze Movie Review
Falling Star

"Blaze," a new biopic from writer/director Ethan Hawke ("Boyhood"), focuses on the swaggering life and untimely death of singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, who was something of an underground sensation on the fringes of the outlaw country movement in the 1970s & 80s. Foley spent years crisscrossing the country, crashing in cheap motels or sleeping in the back seats of cars, and hitting up honky tonk bars to share his songs with audiences that were sometimes receptive, at times apathetic, and occasionally downright hostile. Creatively gifted but plagued by an existential restlessness, Foley's unpredictable temperament torpedoed relationships and led to the substance abuse that ultimately derailed a shot at stardom. Despite these challenges he enjoyed periods of relative contentment, including a long-term relationship with writer Sybil Rosen, whose memoir, "Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley," is the basis of the film.

"Blaze," co-written and directed by Ethan Hawke ("Boyhood"), presents the moody musician from three different vantage points: a posthumous radio interview with Foley's friend and contemporary Townes Van Zandt (musician-turned-actor Charlie Sexton) and bandmate Zee (Josh Hamilton, "Manchester By the Sea"), a sweet but unsentimental look back at his relationship with Rosen (Alia Shawkat, "20th Century Women"), and rough glimpses of one of the itinerant musician's last shows in front of an indifferent crowd at a rundown Texas bar.

As befits a portrait constructed from the memories of others and a generous dose of urban legend, "Blaze" feels a bit haphazard at first as it skips from a disastrous later-years recording session with a drunk and belligerent Foley back to the fresh-faced first meeting between the singer and Rosen, then an aspiring actress. Musician-turned-actor Ben Dickey is dynamite in the title role, ably handling the shifts in character from the amiable and pensive young artist to the untethered, road-weary performer who's as apt to alienate audiences with his temper as he is to charm them with his talent. Mr. Dickey effectively channels the dangerous volatility of a frustrated artist in scenes where Foley drunkenly hurl himself at a bar patron who's luckless enough to initiate a noisy phone conversation in the middle of a set, or cusses out an audience that's giving him grief for forgetting some lyrics. He's equally compelling in emotional scenes with Ms. Shawkat as the young couple makes their home for a time in a friend's treehouse and discuss the life they hope is ahead for them.

What is in fact ahead is an unwanted pregnancy, an aimless move to the city, and the beginnings of a schism as Blaze focuses on his music while Sybil takes a waitressing job to keep their heads above water. Intercut with this storyline are the recollections about Foley by late Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt, one of the ringleaders of the burgeoning outlaw country scene and Foley's friend and champion. One-time musical wunderkind Charlie Sexton is, in a word, mesmerizing as Van Zandt. Casting is "Blaze's" strong suit, and once again it pays off big time here: as with Mr. Dickey, there's a truth in Mr. Sexton's portrayal, a patina that could only come from having lived those years on the road that he's called on to evoke. You believe both his winking tall tale about the lengths he went to in winning back Blaze's guitar from a pawn shop, and his unvarnished gratitude for Blaze's rescue when years of hard living take their toll and he blanks on lyrics during a performance.

As leading lady and biographer Sybil Rosen, Ms. Shawkat, who is known primarily for comic roles, is touching here in a beautifully modulated dramatic turn that ably illustrates the impossible balancing act of serving as both idealized muse and real-world support system to a tempestuous artist, while also pursuing a creative life of one's own. It's instructive to watch her move from idealism to reality to disillusion over the course of the relationship. She gradually realizes that the man who writes her soaring, achingly-worded letters from the road ("I love you like in books") and births a song titled "I Should Have Been Home With You" by drunkenly scrawling the lyrics on the walls of their apartment like a confession isn't ever really going to be there for her; he's having a passionate, star-crossed affair with his art.

"Blaze" manages the trick of balancing seemingly aimless, impressionistic vignettes with a quietly linear sense that there's trouble up ahead; you know this story is headed somewhere, and it isn't good. That sense of impending doom hangs over Blaze Foley, but it's not his whole story. At times funny, frustrating, joyous, and heartbreaking, "Blaze" resurrects an almost-legend and presents his many facets: philosopher and performer, combatant and clown, idealist, wanderer, lover, artist, friend. It's a heartfelt elegy, a paean to friendship, and a must-see movie.

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