Never heard of Blaze Foley? You’re not alone. So why would Ethan Hawke decide to direct a film about a country singer and songwriter who died at 39 after a flirtation with fame that went nowhere? Maybe for just that very reason. Right up until that day in 1989 when he took a fatal gunshot to the chest from the son of a friend, Foley was making his own kind of music, this time in a dive bar in Austin, Texas called the Outhouse. Hawke keeps coming back to that recording, a DIY undertaking made with Foley’s own tapes, as Blaze talked, rambled, snarled and sang to a small audience who mostly showed indifference.
You won’t. And not just because Ben Dickey, a musician without a lick of acting experience, plays Foley’s contradictions — from charming good ol’ boy to ornery bastard — without a note of excuse or sloppy sentiment. The bearish first-timer, doing double duty on guitar and vocals, brings a lived-in authenticity to such songs as “Clay Pigeons,” “If I Could Only Fly,” and “Picture Cards Can’t Picture You.” Dickey doesn’t impersonate Foley; he embodies him as a soulful artist and flawed human being who fought back the more that fame tried to tell him how to do things. Born Michael David Fuller in Arkansas (musician Red Foley was an inspiration), Blaze grew up in Texas singing with his mother, brother and sisters, acquiring the nickname “Deputy Dawg.” A bout with polio left him with a limp. And his disdain for glitz inspired him to use duct tape on the tips of his boots. (No rhinestones for this cowboy.) And one scene, featuring Foley singing to his abusive drunk of a dad (a superb Kris Kristofferson), now institutionalized and nearly comatose, suggests a lifetime in a few short moments.
Instead of following biopic blueprints, Hawke directs Blaze like a Foley song: artful, all over the place and possessed of enough blunt truth and aching tenderness to pull you up short. He basically divides the movie into three sections, with the most moving section involving Foley’s love affair with Sybil Rosen, an aspiring actress he calls “a beautiful little Jewish girl with kinky hair.” The remarkable Alia Shawkat plays the role with amazing grace and grit, making us understand the inspiration that this rough-hewn artist drew from her, especially during the year they spent living in the woods in a treehouse. It’s no wonder Hawke wrote the screenplay with Rosen, whose memoir is the basis for the film.
To understand Foley’s life on the road in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New York and, finally, Austin, where booze often got the best of him and helped end his relationship with Rosen, Hawke includes a radio interview conducted after the singer’s death. It’s Hawke, his back to the camera, who conducts the conversation with the late man’s friend and fellow musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), a harmonica player who seems poleaxed by the tall tales being told. (It involves going to Foley’s grave to dig up his body and retrieve a pawn ticket for Townes’ guitar). It’s myth-making, for sure, but Sexton — a longtime member of Bob Dylan’s band — brings a spectacular charisma to the honkytonk troubadour, whose own poetic nature and substance dependence mirrored Foley’s.
Still, the movie returns most often to the Outhouse bar where Foley created his most memorable music on the day of his death. It’s here that Dickey and Hawke join forces to construct a portrait of an artist eager to making his art no matter how few applaud or even bear witness. We see an outlaw musician who fought to hold off success at the pass. In a terrific scene, Foley destroys a big chance offered to him by a trio of record execs, played hilariously by — of all people — Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn. As Foley tells Rosen, “I don’t want to be a star, I want to be a legend.” Since his death, the Foley legend has been burnished by others, including Kevin Triplett’s 2011 documentary, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah. “If I Could Only Fly” has been recorded by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson; “Election Day” was covered by Lyle Lovett and “Clay Pigeons” by John Prine. The song “Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams is a tribute to Foley, as is Townes Van Zandt’s “Blaze’s Blues.”
But Hawke, less interested in kissing up to his subject than in telling the prickly truth, does it best. Instead of making a biopic underscored with on-point song cues, the actor-director uncovers the random snatches of love, loneliness, creativity, insecurity and self-destructiveness that make up a life. Hawke doesn’t tell us about Foley, he shows us an artist in the act of defining himself by making music on his own terms. That’s also what he’s doing as a filmmaker in this self-described “gonzo country western opera.” Blaze sparks fire by putting us in a legend’s restless, resourceful company. Watch him fly.