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This musical biopic is not Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut—anybody seen 2001’s Chelsea Walls or 2006’s The Hottest State? I have not—but it is set to be his first to have any sort of impact on year-end awards.
Ben Dickey is revelatory as late singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. A musician acting for the first time, Dickey has as great a way of talking as he does singing. The lines composed by Hawke and co-writer Sybil Rosen, Foley’s widow—herself portrayed by “Arrested Development”’s Alia Shawkat—help Dickey construct a tortured, artistic soul that feels real, not written. Hawke, Rosen, Dickey, Shawkat and others craft a scattered tale of love, artistic genius and the mania that often accompanies both.
The film has little interest in Foley’s upbringing with a probably-abusive father, briefly portrayed by Kris Kristofferson. Like a folk-tastic Walk the Line, Blaze focuses on Foley’s brief, loving time with Rosen, which musician pals Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) narrate—unreliably, considering neither of them were present for the couple’s courtship or years residing in the woods. It is likely Hawke does not care about narrative consistency; after all, he collaborated with Rosen on the script, so one presumes the accuracy of her recall.
Blaze is constructed with beautiful, humanistic precision. The lyrics to Foley’s life may be the same as those sung in every country music biopic, but Blaze’s melody is so much sweeter and more authentic than the aforementioned Walk the Line or 2015’s I Saw the Light.