Like most movies about musicians, Blaze imagines fame and success as phantom goalposts leading the artist into perilous straits.
Movies about musicians often operate in a mode similar to those about outlaws, centering around magnetic but otherwise antisocial figures, whose casual flouting of custom and convention serves to identify flaws, shortcomings and contradictions in the regular flow of mainstream society. It’s fitting then that Blaze plays out as a kind of shaggy-dog modern Western, it’s mumbling, mountainous hero stumbling forward in a doomed but good-natured stupor. Unlike most Western heroes, he stands out less due to willful intransigence than an utter inability to blend in, his good-natured affability underscored by signs of serious mental illness. The film ultimately serves as a vague indictment of a culture too close-minded to allow this kind of cult figure to flourish, although this idea never coalesces into anything resembling a coherent thesis.
Blaze is of a piece with Ethan Hawke’s mellow-yet-intense, bro-poetic vibe. He envisions the singer as a Christ-like figure, gentle and misunderstood, while also leaving space for his rough edges to manifest themselves. In doing so he manages a subversion of the usual sanctifying biopic formula, albeit one that leans too hard in the other direction, assembling a formless, shaggy collection of discrete scenes. Ben Dickey provides a strong anchor as Foley, although it’s not enough to elevate the movie from the languorous, smoky fug in which it drifts on by.
The main issue is that the real Foley seems like a less-than-ideal candidate for this type of iconic treatment, a marginally successful touring musician who never put out a proper recording in his lifetime. This low profile is likely what’s attracted Hawke to him in the first place, yet he fails to present a convincing explanation as to why such a figure merits his own movie. Furthermore, while positioning Foley as an anti-rock-star, the film besets him with the same sort of trials and tribulations that typically affect his more famous counterparts, leaving the narrative feeling familiar even when it strives for something different.
Things are further complicated by a needlessly complex story structure, which skips between a posthumous interview with famous booster Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and bandmate Zee (Josh Hamilton), and scenes at the tumultuous show which formed the basis for Foley’s Live at the Austin Outhouse album. These two scenarios serve as padding for an otherwise chronological narrative, spanning about a decade of Foley’s adult life, mostly covering the advent and dissolution of his marriage to Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). The two meet at a Georgia commune, where she practices acting and he does handyman work, and later retire into a cozy nest of a cabin deep in the woods, hiding out from the world.
This blooming romance makes for the film’s strongest section, evincing a homey treehouse warmth, made mournful by knowledge that this idyll cannot last for long. This tender immediacy likely has something to do with the fact that the script was co-written by Rosen herself, based on her memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree. Sadly the intimacy expressed here gets attenuated elsewhere, as the couple grows apart, Foley sliding further into alcoholism and mental illness as his career expands. Like most movies about musicians, Blaze imagines fame and success as phantom goalposts leading the artist into perilous straits, creativity envisioned as something akin to an open flame. Yet despite its tragic arc, the film never succeeds in making any of this feel remotely dramatic, settling for a murmuring progression of fateful events heading toward an unfortunate outcome.