When John Prine recorded Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons,” it was sort of like Elvis Presley covering Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” but on a much smaller scale. His greatest hit was no longer associated with him, but for Foley, “greatest hit” would be a highly relative term. His career was a minefield of frustrations, as was just about every other aspect of his life, especially for the people close to him. Of course, the worst part was its violent, premature end, at the age of thirty-nine (a mere five years older than Charlie Parker, if that constitutes any sort of bragging rights). Foley is gone and he was never as well known as he should have been, but his memory haunts those who know him in Ethan Hawke’s pointillistic portrait Blaze (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Hawke’s memory approximates the way memory works, hopping forwards and backwards, following murky emotional connections. However, we can easily piece together the broad narrative strokes of the life of Foley, born Michael David Fuller. We can also tell it will end early and badly, based on a radio interview with his friend and fellow musician, Townes Van Zandt, which turns into an informal eulogy for Foley.
Initially, the burly Foley was a mild-mannered carpenter with a surprisingly tuneful singing voice. His marriage to Sybil Rosen is clearly the best thing that ever happened to him. Yet, ironically, it is her confidence in his talent that convinces him to pursue a professional career, starting in Austin. Unfortunately, the pressure of their separation, coupled with addiction issues would undermine their union.
Tragically, we know where all this is headed, but that is no fault of Hawke, who co-adapted Rosen’s memoir for the screen, with Rosen herself. We can blame Foley for falling into the traps that ensnared so many other musicians before and since and we can blame his cronies for contributing to a bad scene, but what happened, happened. In this case, it really was a crime that maybe sort of fit his outlaw persona, rather than the inevitable end of a conventional addiction story.
Hawke’s indie musician friend Ben Dickey is a good physical and musical likeness of Foley. It is an impressive debut, but if award season comes calling for Blaze, it will be Alia Shawkat getting the calls. She shows arguably the greatest range of her career as Rosen, showing power and sorrow we have never had a chance to see from her before. Yet, it is the quiet chemistry she develops with Dickey that really kills it.
They sell the love story, but it is Charlie Sexton who makes it all sound so good, as the film’s music director and a truly spooky dead-ringer for Van Zandt. Rather mind-blowingly, Hawke recorded all the music live as it appears in the film, so it is always Dickey and Sexton we hear in performance, but they do right by Foley and Van Zandt.
There are plenty of films with less narrative cohesion than Blaze, but it still might take some viewers a bit of time to unlock Hawke’s approach, but there is very definitely a method to it. Viewers should really start to get it when they compare the two hitchhiking scenes (the contrast is heartbreaking).
It would also be rather maddening but also somewhat illuminating to compare Blaze with Robert Budreau’s Chet Baker bio-pic, Born to Be Blue, starring Hawke. (For one thing, Hawke poached cinematographer Steve Cossens, who perfectly captures the grittiness of Foley’s milieu.) The two films feature very different styles of very American forms of music, but in each case, the people around Foley and Baker probably forgave them more than was ultimately in their best interests, just because they were so talented. Highly recommended, especially for fans of roots music, Blaze opens this Friday (9/7) in New York, at the IFC Center.