“Stars burn up because they shine for themselves. Legends last forever.”
Sick and tired of the manufactured bubble-gum radio pop churned out of Nashville’s pores and into the radio waves 24/7? Ready for country to find something to wear other than a Henley and skinny jeans? Excited to bury “cuties” “trucks” and “solo cups” deep in the country lexicon cemetery? Have I got a solution for you; move time back a few decades.
Stop your time machine somewhere around the early 2000’s and you can witness the death of deep-seeded troubadour country with the passing of legends like Johnny Cash, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Townes Van Zandt. While these fellas ended their time on this plane of existence, dozens more faded into obscurity around the same time. Buried deep down that list of country stories that fell apart lies that of Blaze Foley, a psychedelic country crooner from a tiny loving corner of Arkansas. An eternal roving hippy playing the blues about social injustice and pretty women, Foley’s legacy has only briefly been unfurled by country music historians despite being a musician’s legend through tales of his carefree 39 years on earth. Whether they’re all true or not, Blaze presents a colorful imagination of the man’s life through the caring eyes of those who surrounded him.
Pivoting between his years married to his wife Sybil and the end of his life, Blaze can feel like pages of a scrapbook torn apart and hastily reassembled, but there’s a sound method to the madness. Tackling the director role for the first time, Hollywood veteran Ethan Hawke is absolute in his movement of the story, tying together themes that both haunted and empowered Blaze’s solitary voice in country music. Mostly told in recollection through a fictional radio interview with long time buddy Van Zandt and Blaze’s longer time compadre harmonica player Zee, Blaze does a formidable job touching on the boundless joy and energy that built the man’s larger-than life persona as well as his vicious demons that steered clear of recognition every chance they got.
Starting on the polar ends of the storyline, the film builds between the halcyon days of his early love and the washed-out haze of his last. First time actor Ben Dickey and Arrested Development alumni Alia Shawkat portray one of the sweetest love stories you’ll ever see in film.
Holed up in a tree-house deep in the woods of Georgia with fellow flower children, the two are head over heels for each other in a surrounding with no distractions from their love. Their solitary existence is incredibly appealing, even when doomed by their drive to get more out of life than the nothing they enjoyed stewing in. The two actor’s chemistry is purely saccharine, paying off double when the trouble starts to arise in their starry-eyed lives.
On the other end of the line, Dickey’s aged portrayal of Blaze Foley carries the same whimsy of earlier in his life, but with a much dimmer glow. Constantly duct taping together his only jacket and collecting beers like dust on a shelf, Blaze is a bleeding heart that no one cares to listen to, literally recording his “Live At The Austin Outhouse” record to a loose pile of impatient bar-flies anxiously waiting for a show from Van Zandt that ends up happening much later in the night at a different venue.
The film culminates somewhere in the middle, when you can track the reactions that led Blaze’s life from one end to another. One particularly brutal but telling scene features a cameo from Blaze’s father, played by Kris Kristopherson (a country music troubadour himself). It’s as heartbreaking as it is poignant and illuminating on the human condition for geniuses cursed with unhinged power and talent as well as their upbringing. Like always, Blaze attempts to recollect mid-film after a peak into where his demons came from, not because of his longing for fame, but because he doesn’t know what else to do. “Sometimes rivers dry up. Still have a direction but there’s no more flow”.
Hawke really stews in the euphemisms and rambles Blaze is constantly mumbling under his breath or over a guitar line. They’re the type of platitudes that one can either invest their whole life in or discount as total bull-sh*t, and they carry weight either way. Early in the film Sybil ponders the fame she knows Blaze deserves over some beers in the back of a sputtering pick-up truck when she asks him, “You going to be a big country star?”
“I don’t wanna be a star”, Blaze calmly growls. “I wanna be a legend…Stars burn up because they shine for themselves. Legends last forever; stand for something that matters.”
Cowboys existed for a long time after their cow-herding utility faded through the American country music scene of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Many of their careers disappeared at the turn of the century.
The legends will never die. And now, due in no small part to this brilliant piece of work, Blaze Foley lives on, forever.