Thursday, September 20, 2018

He sang, drank and died young

Ethan Hawke directs a movie about country singer Blaze Foley, a man who may not have gotten his due..
Some musicians play the blues. Some live the blues. Some do both.

I guess you could say that Blaze Foley falls into the latter category. Foley, who acquired an admiring reputation among country music aficionados, probably would have drunk himself into an early grave had he not been shot by the son of one of his friends. He died in 1989 at the age of 40.

An actor of estimable intelligence and wide-ranging interests, Ethan Hawke has directed a film about Foley's life and music, both of which find ample expression in Blaze.

Played by singer Ben Dickey, Foley comes off as a bearish man of contradictions: shy, belligerent, gifted and funny. He can wring laughs out of a folksy story or sell the sadness in a song. Foley was known for tunes such as If I Could Fly and Clay Pigeons; his tunes were recorded by artists such as Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and John Prine.

As a kind of framing device, Hawke shows singer Townes Van Zandt (played by Charlie Sexton) during a radio interview. The interviewer (a barely seen Hawke) receives an unexpected lesson in the history of Blaze Foley, a singer he's never heard of. Then again, lots of people haven't heard of Foley, who never really occupied country music's center stage.

In some ways, then, Blaze becomes the story of a gifted singer/songwriter who could be as charming as he was off-putting. Just about everything Foley did was accompanied by his three most reliable companions: liquor, cigarettes, and pot.

Hawke also spends time on Foley's relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), an actress who wrote a memoir about her life with Blaze. It would take quite a woman to keep up with Blaze and Sybil was that woman -- at least until the relationship fell apart. Early on, the two share their romance while living in a Georgia tree house. They met at a Georgia artists colony.

In one of the movie's funniest scenes, Sybil and Blaze visit her Jewish parents, a couple that's not accustomed to people such as Blaze. Worried about having non-Jewish grandchildren, Dad questions Blaze about his commitment to Christianity. Let's just say Blaze's answer wouldn't have evoked cheers from evangelicals.

The real Rosen plays her mother in this scene as an accommodating Blaze and an assertive Sybil deal with a moment that's awkward under the best of circumstances. If you want to stretch your mind a bit try to imagine Thanksgiving dinner at the Rosen household.

Foley's hardscrabble childhood comes into view when he and Sybil visit Blaze's father, a once-feared man who has slipped into senescence in a nursing home. Kris Kristofferson makes an impact in a small role as Foley's father. Age seems to have taken all the mean out of the man.

The best parts of the movie involve music or plain old hanging out. When they're not playing, the musicians talk, telling stories in colorful fashion. It's a pleasure to listen to these guys.

I wish I could say that I didn't get a little tired of all the movie's meandering but Hawke shows no interest in grabbing us by the collar and pulling us through a movie composed mostly of side trips. In one of them, Richard Linklater, Steve Zahn, and Sam Rockwell play Texans who want to push Foley toward stardom. You don't need to be a fortune teller to know that their plan won't work. Foley will find a way to mess things up.

At one point, Foley says that he's not interested in being a star; he wants to be a legend. I don't know if he became either, but for the length of Hawke's film, he's the center of a sauntering look at the life of a man who other musicians respected, who left the world a few songs and a ton of stories -- many of them quite entertaining.

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