Written and directed by Ethan Hawke
Starring Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton and Charlie Sexton
Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and drug use
By Ashley Jane McClosky
“I don’t wanna be a star. I wants to be a legend. Stars burn out because they shine for themselves… Legends last forever.” – Blaze Foley
I have a confession. I’m a secret songwriter. There are songs swirling around these things called radio waves that I wrote. Nothing remotely well-known, you would never ever find them. But I wrote ‘em, and sold ‘em. I get royalties for them! However, I cast them far away and never listen to them ever again. Why don’t I care? Because they were…country songs. If you like country music, that’s great. I do NOT. I hate it. If you catch me listening to country music, well it ain’t me, babe. But you know what? I *get* it. I find it easy to craft a country music song, but I don't care about it. I’m basically turnin’ tricks fer cash. However, SONGWRITERS. Now that is something I care very deeply about.
A songwriter is a different kind of person. No one writes a song because he or she is a happy, well-adjusted person who just wants to share joy. It doesn’t happen like that. If it’s an upbuilding and encouraging song, it’s pretend. Can I speak for every songwriter ever? Of course not. Am I anyway? Yep. Sometimes a song is just a song – a story. Just lyrics to fit with music. And if you can pump ‘em out, you could make some money on them. But if you are the type to actually write or listen to songs that mean something to you, you will identify with the story of Blaze Foley.
The whole time I was watching this film, there was one term that I kept thinking about. Keith Richards used the term “high lonesome” to describe his soulmate, and one of my favorite songwriters, Gram Parsons. “It’s a kind of Beautiful Pain. You only understand what it means when you got it.” I get it, I really do. Blaze Foley is High Lonesome.
In Blaze, we follow the much too short life of singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Ethan Hawke is in no rush to tell his story. It floats gently like a feather, not on a predictable set path, but in a non-linear pattern which is so true to how memories actually work. If you think about your life so far right now, do you just remember in chronological order? Probably not, because our memories are not organized in that way. That is why his method here made perfect sense to me. It essentially flows between three different timelines. One, where Blaze is living a simple and heartwarming existence with his muse and the woman he loves, Sybil Rosen, played affectionately by Alia Shawkat. The second follows Blaze through the tragic events of the last day of his life. And finally, the third peers into a radio interview given posthumously by his close friends and musical colleagues, Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton, who I also loved in Eighth Grade), in which they reminisce fondly and honestly about the kind of person Blaze was.
Blaze Foley is played by Ben Dickey, a musician in his first acting role. The casting choices get my full respect. There is nothing that bothers me more than a movie about musicians that features characters played by actors who cannot play. Sorry. Actors can pretend to do many things - that’s their job. But to portray the action of going out in front of a crowd, playing songs, and literally pouring yourself out onto everything and everyone there, that is just something that cannot be faked for me. Unfortunately, it’s done so often. Big stars playing musicians - why? They have enough opportunities. Ben’s performance just stole my heart. For all his faults, he is this sweet and gentle soul at his core. The scenes that resonated with me the most are where Blaze is playing the gig he did the last night of his life, in a rundown empty bar. He is this broken man, held together by duct tape (literally), and the songs he wrote back when life was easier for him. Those are some of the most authentic scenes in the movie. I believe it. I believe him. I don’t care that I’ve never seen this guy in anything else before. Another scene that could not be accomplished by an actor with no musical background is when Charlie Sexton, who portrays Townes Van Zandt, plays Marie in a vacant ballroom in a hotel. It is mesmerizing.
This film feels very much like autumn, if that makes sense. It even looks like it with the golden color palette. That is my favorite time of the year. It’s beautiful, but you know it will only last so long. Soon everything will die and it will be winter. That’s kind of how this movie is. We look on as Blaze and Sybil are hidden away from the world in their treehouse, being together. It’s touching. But you know it’s not going to last.
Life on the road and all of its traps and temptations get to Blaze. He retreats further away from Sybil, who is clearly just on his side always. She inspired Blaze so much, because she truly believed in him. She might have been the first person in his life to believe in him. The songs he wrote for her held the kind of words a person would long to have someone express about them. And the wonderful and sometimes poignant thing about a song is that it lives forever. But, sometimes that kind of poetic heart doesn’t stay satisfied. It’s clear that the best and most stable part of his life was his relationship with Sybil, so it’s painful to watch him pull away.
I identified with so much of this film in a very personal way. For me, writing songs is like writing in a journal or a diary in whatever stage of life I’m in. It starts with something on my mind. Sometimes throwing together a crudely constructed song on a page is enough. Then I’m done. Sometimes I will roughly record it on my phone and then be finished with it. But if I’m actually recording it “for real”, I mean this. It is a LOT of work to do alone. Composing an arrangement for every instrument. Singing (“singing”) every harmony. Endlessly fixing mistakes and making adjustments - infinitesimal adjustments that literally no one on the planet would notice. It becomes an obsession. It overtakes my mind. And like all art, it’s never completed, just abandoned. Then what? What if you share it with someone? This process is a borderline barbaric exercise to a sensitive soul (hey, if you’re writing a song – you are a sensitive soul, get used to it). It’s excruciating. I suppose it’s like sharing anything creative. But what if the song is ABOUT the person you are sharing it with? Let me try to describe this sensation: Imagine every time you ever went on a job interview, went to the principal’s office, gotten a bad fever, waited for medical test results, given a speech in class, made a presentation at work, gone through a police spot check, gone on a first date, changed in a public change room, or like LOOKED IN THE MIRROR.
It’s all those things, at the same time. It’s like “HEY, IT ME! WHADDYA THINK?” You might as well just zip yourself outta your skin because you’re just bare bones now. I’m being dramatic. (But but, I’m a sensitive songwriterrrr!) Long story short (too late), I am naturally drawn to films about songwriters, because I get it. It takes a lot. Townes’ character sums this up in a scene where he says, “If you wanna write a song, if you really wanna write a song, everyone’s gonna tell you you’re gonna have to live that song. But nah, that’s not it. You’re gonna have to die a little.”
When it comes to creativity, in its most basic terms, there are two general wells you can draw from. One is from a place of love or contentment, which would be ideal for everyone to be inspired by. However, more often, art is derived from drawing from that second much deeper well of sadness, narcissism or self-loathing. I wish it wasn’t this way, but it is. In this movie, it’s a delight to see Blaze live in the glow of the former, and inevitable to see him dip into the latter.
The deep love and appreciation Ethan Hawke has for the subject is so apparent. It’s very endearing. He’s not trying to make coins here. Peddlin’ out stuff that will just make money, like so many people do. It’s evident that this story was so important for him to tell in every frame of the film. It wasn’t without flaws, of course. I found it dragged, was longer than it needed to be, but I didn’t really care because I was so invested in this story.
There’s a scene where Blaze stumbles out of the bar after playing his final set. There is a man and his daughter selling flowers. The young girl catches up with Blaze to give him a flower. It’s such a heartwarming scene that speaks about just being human. I think children can tell. They can read people better than we know as adults, or better than we give them credit for. She sees something in Blaze, and I did too. He was far from perfect and sometimes hurt other people, but he was human. The way Blaze dies speaks volumes to his character. It tore me up. It wasn’t a silly self-destruction tale. The scene where his old love visits the place of his death and there are flashbacks between the current time of her walking through the house interspersed with what happened on his last night really got to me.
If I’m honest, I’m finding it difficult to think of this in terms of writing about a film. I just keep thinking about the character of Blaze. He self-destructs, pushes people away. But that heart of his - that high lonesome heart. So many countless people devote their lives to the arts but never see commercial success, don’t get a big break. Every music biopic I can think of off the top of my head seems to be about artists who make it big. So the fact that they made it big - is that what makes their story worth telling? What about the untold numbers who have so much fear about what they create? So much worry that their voices aren’t worth hearing?
To be fair, I was predisposed to love this. I knew it would mean something special to me before it even began. It’s not perfect. But it has so much heart, it inspired me. It reminded me of why I ever started to play music to begin with - to express things I just couldn’t say with plain words. I’ll never find critical success as a songwriter. I won’t even come close to what someone like Blaze Foley has accomplished, but if I can be true to myself in this way and maybe even make someone else feel something, that’s all I could ask for.