By Bradley Lane
When Ethan Hawke revealed his first directorial project was going to be on outlaw country music artist Blaze Foley, I firstly rejoiced at the thought of one of my favorite actors helming a feature-length directorial reject and secondly, I asked myself who the heck was Blaze Foley. Hawke confirms in interviews promoting the film that he expected his audience to not be familiar with his subject, and even uses this lack of expectations to his advantage by casting a first-time actor, Ben Dickey, in the titular role. This, in conjuncture with Hawke’s clear infatuation with Blaze Foley as a character, makes for a whiskey-soaked, laid-back outlaw country music epic.
That was a lot of descriptors, but the film combines so many elements so seamlessly that it’s hard to boil it down into a succinct genre or categorization. In some ways it’s a biopic, in that it follows the life of Foley and his struggles to break into the music industry. In other ways it is a musical, playing Foley’s greatest hits in a live setting. However, the most pronounced aspect of the film is a romance. Both in that, for a large portion of the film, it focuses on his relationships and again further as it romanticizes Foley as a persona. For most of the film Blaze is just as interested in the bottom of his beer glass as he is in writing songs and making it as an artist.
That being mentioned, Ben Dickey’s Blaze Foley is an insanely likable character. He feels like the dive bar regular who sits around all night getting drunk and telling stories until the sun comes up. Despite being constantly inebriated and hot-tempered, you cannot help but be in Blaze’s corner for every scene. While Dickey deserves some credit for this, Hawke is equally responsible due to his passion for the story.
In the previously mentioned interview, he talks about how all biopics are made about famous people, and that he resented the implicit message that sent to audiences. He connected to Foley in the way that despite not gaining mainstream recognition in his lifetime, his legend went on to inspire some of America’s greatest artists and storytellers like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Towns Van Zandt and John Prine. By telling Blaze’s story in this fashion, Hawke validates the struggling artist everywhere as someone who is valuable and worth paying attention to.
Ethan Hawke’s wild proficiency adapts a story to film that feels as warm and tender as one of Foley’s songs. Blaze is available to stream on Netflix. – 4/5 stars.