By: Trevor Chartrand
Director Ethan Hawke’s country music biopic Blaze leaves a lot to be desired – with a lot of atmosphere and not much narrative, this film is meandering and weak. To some, the film could perhaps be considered an abstract poem, akin to the music stylings of the late Blaze Foley, which I suppose should be commendable. However, given the more obscure nature of this film’s subject, the storytelling gaps will leave audiences scratching their heads instead of them stomping their feet.
To Hawke’s credit, who co-wrote the film with Sybil Rosen (Blaze Foley’s real-life widow), this is a fresh take on the musical biopic. Unlike so many of these films we’ve seen over the years (Walk The Line, Ray, or even this year’s Bohemian Rhapsody), Blaze does a bit more than cycle from hit song to hit song with a contrived origin story for the music and lyrics of each artist. Because this singer-songwriter is a tad less renowned, the film can’t get away with relying on the popular, recognizable songs everyone knows. As a result, it does dare to be different, at least.
The film intercuts between three major time periods in Blaze’s life – his younger courtship of Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), his post-relationship woes following their break-up, and a radio interview with his good friend Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton), who fondly remembers Blaze with an album dedication following his death. The latter radio interview is the closest thing we get to a structural core in this film, with Van Zandt essentially narrating Blaze’s story.
The issue is that the film lacks a sense of flow, as it freely moves between three different eras without much rhyme or reason. There’s no clever contrast or mirroring happening and the intercutting appears unmotivated and unjustified. As a result, we have a film that’s nothing more than a series of scenes and fleeting moments, without any stakes, consequences or connectivity. As a result, Blaze truly lacks cohesion and purpose.
Hawke’s film finally finds direction at the halfway point, when Blaze lands a record deal, but just when there’s something for the audience to root for, he loses the deal almost as quickly as he got it. There’s just not nearly enough to latch onto in this film as a viewer. For the most part, this is a depiction of Blaze bumming around from one town to the next, and the film is just as aimless and meandering as the character is.
The most redeemable qualities offered up by Blaze are strong performances and an impressive soundtrack. As the titular Blaze Foley, actor Ben Dickey (even with his awful, glued-on fake beard) is the embodiment of a walking country-western song. Everything the man says has a honkey-tonk spin, selling the idea that songwriting is his entire life.
The music is recreated delicately, with a great deal of craft and skill. There’s a lot of melancholy within the soundtrack – which sets the poetic, slice-of-life tone of the film quite effectively.
I do believe the film works as a respectful tribute to the artist Blaze Foley – however as a cinematic experience, it lacks the drama required to get an audience member invested. Unsurprisingly, the film is based on Sybil Rosen’s book, Living in the Woods in a Tree, which is essentially just a series of memoirs about the singer-songwriter. Sadly, this series of vignettes doesn’t translate to the big screen very successfully, especially without the inclusion of a cohesive story or the necessary character motivations to get audience members interested.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor