Early on in their relationship Blaze Foley’s (Ben Dickey) girlfriend and muse Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) asks, “Are you going to be a big country star, like Roger Miller?” The singer-songwriter replies, “I don’t want to be a star. I want to be a legend.”
Texas singer, songwriter Foley did indeed lead a legendary life. The “Let Me Ride in Your Big Cadillac” singer, who died at in obscurity age 39, wore duct tape on the toes of his boots to mock wannabe cowboys with silver-tipped cowboy boots. Later, the master tapes from his first studio album were confiscated by the DEA. Lucinda Williams dedicated the tune “Drunken Angel” to him and Ethan Hawke was inspired to co-write and direct the movie “Blaze” based on the novel “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Rosen.
“Blaze” is as non-traditional as its subject. Non-chronological and bold, it’s a study of creativity, relationships and struggle. The backbone of the story is a radio interview with Foley’s friend, musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton). Chain-smoking, he details the events of Foley’s life as a musician and companion to Sybil. As mythmaking takes over Van Zandt’s storytelling another friend, Zee (Josh Hamilton), jumps in, bringing the story back to earth. Zee’s influence grounds the story. Far from justifying the usual bad behaviour essayed in music bios, “Blaze” looks to examine why Foley acted out.
Playing Foley in the flashback scenes is newcomer Dickey. The heavyset Dickey captures Foley’s lost soul status in a performance that is equal parts charisma and kindness. Because the singer died in virtual obscurity for most audiences there is no deeply etched idea of who Foley was. That gives Dickey the opportunity to take all the elements that formed Foley—creativity, a vein of self-destruction tempered by sweetness and talent—and bundle them into a portrait that captures what the singer was all about. It’s a lovely, edgy performance that is the soul of the film.
Like the man himself, there is nothing standard about “Blaze,” the story of his life. Hawke takes chances narratively and stylistically, fracturing the timeline of Foley’s life to make a film that proves, once and for all, that music biopics don’t just have to be about famous people.