Monday, January 28, 2019

Movie Review: Blaze

Blaze *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ethan Hawke.
Written by: Ethan Hawke & Sybil Rosen based on the memoir by Sybil Rosen.
Starring: Ben Dickey (Blaze Foley), Alia Shawkat (Sybil), Charlie Sexton (Townes Van Zandt), Josh Hamilton (Zee), Kris Kristofferson (Edwin Fuller), Richard Linklater (Oilman), Sam Rockwell (Oilman), Steve Zahn (Oilman), Gurf Morlix (Himself), Ethan Hawke (Radio DJ), Alynda Lee Segarra (Marsha), Sybil Rosen (Mrs. Rosen), Jonathan Marc Sherman (Sam), Jean Carlot (Jeannette).
Ethan Hawke’s Blaze deliberately rambles and ambles through it’s just over two-hour runtime – often feeling deliberately aimless. It isn’t aimless though – and the film actually has a fairly intricate construction, with not one, but two framing devices and a flashback structure. All of this is deliberate – a way to capture the shaggy life of its subject – Blaze Foley, a country/folk singer/songwriter who never really became a star (which he didn’t want to be), but perhaps did become a legend (which he did). He died in 1989 – when he was only 40 – and this film tries to get at what made love Blaze (or, you know, not love him) through the eyes of other people.
The structure of the film flashes back and forth in time. The two framing devices are a radio interview with Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) – friend and mentor Blaze’s, and Zee (Josh Hamilton) - a long time bandmate of Blaze’s – who tell long, winding stories about Blaze (well, mainly Townes does – Zee gets increasingly frustrated with the whole exercise). The second framing device is the last night of Blaze’s life, where he plays a long show at an Austin dive bar – recorded as a double album – and gives the film an opportunity to pretty much run through whatever Blaze song they need at that time to match up with the flashbacks. The flashbacks do proceed in more or less chronological order detailing Blaze’s strange life. The first hour of the film is stronger than the second. In it’s in that hour that the film concentrates on the relationship between Blaze (Ben Dickey) and Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) – which was a relationship filled with love, as Sybil was Blaze’s muse and wife. Once their relationship sours – and essentially ends - the second hour is more adrift, without something to anchor it.
As a director, Ethan Hawke has grown from his earlier efforts (Chelsea Walls, The Hottest State) – films like seemed like Hawke a lot to say, and was working really hard to say it, even if it all basically added up to nothing. Here, he seems to have taken a more relaxed style – he’s just going with the flow much like Blaze did. There is also, perhaps, more maturity here than in the past – as Hawke sees that youthful idealism in the love story between Blaze and Sybil as just that – youthful idealism. As the film progressed Sybil grows and changes in ways that Blaze just cannot. Drifting from place to place with no rea, plan, no real money, spending your days and nights getting drunk and playing music is fun, right up until its not.
Both Dickey and Shawkat give wonderful performances here. This is the acting debut of musician Dickey, who does the music himself, and unsurprisingly, do it well. More surprisingly though, he’s even better at the dramatic work here – first as the young man in love, and then as the man who doesn’t really know what he wants. Hawke relies too heavily on montages set to Blaze’s music – which as pretty as they are – do grow repetitive. It perhaps would have helped to have something different up his sleeve for the second half of the film.
Still, Blaze is a fine film from Hawke – and for the performers. It’s a good antidote to musical biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of a band we already know in the most boring way imaginable. Blaze’s story is different – and told in a way that makes it interesting.

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