SXSW Film Review: Ethan Hawke’s Blaze (USA, 2018) is a powerful and effective tribute to a musical great

In the first scenes of Ethan Hawke’s new film Blaze, a biopic about oft Austin based, relatively obscure American musician Blaze Foley, we find out that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Foley’s life was one cut violently short. It’s a choice that Hawke said was made to keep the film from being emotionally manipulative, and the result is a stroke of genius. The film is one not of his death, but a life cut too short, and the music he made along the way.

Playing Foley in the film is musician Ben Dickey, who delivers a powerful performance as the prolific, underappreciated musician. And musicians flood the film; Charlie Sexton is brilliant as Townes Van Zandt and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, makes a brief appearance as Foley’s sister in her first acting role. And then there’s the legendary Kris Kristofferson who plays Foley’s ailing father. The poignancy of having Kristofferson in the role should not be lost on any viewer.

Hawke directs a loving portrayal of Foley and his friend and oft-collaborator Townes Van Zandt, warts and all. These were not perfect people, but as JT Van Zandt said after the film screening at SXSW, as the cast and some special guests including Joe Ely and Nikki Lane paid musical tribute to Foley, “we don’t have to judge them one way or another to appreciate the music that Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley created”. And this is reflected in the performances by Dickey and Sexton.

While the performances are strong, the movie succeeds in the editing room; the film dips and weaves through Blaze’s life, jumping between his final day and the moments that led to it – in particular his relationship with Sybil Rosen (played beautifully by Alia Shawkat), who co-wrote the film with Hawke, where many of his songs were born. The only scenes found outside of this were ones of Townes Zandt (Sexton), with Zee (Josh Hamilton), who provides a form of revisionist history about Foley to a Radio DJ, following his death. In fact it’s through them that we learn of his passing at the beginning of the film.

Unsurprisingly, Foley’s music layers the film, with Ben Dickey’s beautiful performances of the songs played throughout, highlighting the strength of his songwriting. Often the songs serve to progress the storyline, either with the meaning behind the songs laid out, or the context in which they were written made clear.

While moments of Foley’s childhood are mentioned – often in a drunken murmur – the film resists the urge to jump back that far in the narrative. It seems to be another concerted effort to avoid emotionally manipulating the audience, which serves the film well. At its heart, the film is about celebrating his music, and indeed his legacy – not try and provide every minute detail of his life – and its this well crafted focus that ensures the film succeeds.

If I’m going to split some hairs, some inconsistencies in the film’s cinematography were a bit of a distraction, though no doubt a stylistic choice that is of little consequence to the quality of the film.

It’s also worth noting that the city of Austin (where I saw the film screen) plays a big role in the film – even though it wasn’t filmed there (Hawke said to blame the local representatives for that one). And those keen eyes would spot a “Save The Paramount” badge on Foley’s jacket in one of the final scenes of the film. Of course this is the very theatre we got to experience it in; poignant indeed.

And I can’t finish up this review without applauding the film’s surprise ensemble: Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and Richard Linklater as a trio looking to sign Foley to a record deal. Unsurprisingly, they provided some brilliant scenes together – though Rockwell easily stole every scene (little surprise there).

All in all, Blaze is a powerful and effective tribute to a musical great, crafted lovingly by director and co-writer Ethan Hawke and co-writer Sybil Rosen, whose adoration for the late musician comes through in every word spoken on screen. And it makes for a truly wonderful film-going experience, whether you’re familiar with his music or not.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Blaze premiered earlier this year at Sundance and screened at SXSW, where it was reviewed.