Who would have thought the mousy blond boy in “Dead Poets Society” would go on to have a multifaceted, successful career? After proving his caliber in the acting realm, Ethan Hawke has moved on to writing and directing. “Blaze,” his latest writer-director project, showcases an astounding command of language, music and film.
“Blaze” follows the short-lived but passionate relationship between forgotten singer-songwriter Michael David Fuller (Ben Dickey) — stage name Blaze Foley — and his ex-wife Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, “The Intervention”). As Foley strove to create a legacy, he cast aside the love of his life and descended into a state of loneliness, even as his following of admirers grew. Foley’s alcoholism and general self-destructive behavior allowed an unmatched rawness to seep into his music, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Few musical movies accomplish what Hawke crafts in “Blaze”: a symbiosis between soundtrack and image. Often, in other attempts, the music takes over, turning the film into an extended music video. Or, the film overpowers a score that lacks, simply put, good music. In “Blaze,” though, the music and the filmic elements are both stars and neither fade to the background.
“Blaze” hops between a radio show discussing Foley’s legacy, a recreation of Foley’s final performance and snippets of his relationship with Rosen. Rosen’s book “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” and co-writer credit on the film lends authority and intimacy to the story. Her and Hawke’s screenplay reads like a constant flow of poetic lyrics with countless moments that induce snaps of appreciation.
The scenes are choreographed with breathtaking precision and a whimsical wandering that keeps the story human and not the larger-than-life, unrealistic dream-reaching narrative of other musical movies. Montages of Foley and Rosen’s time in the woods display the deep connection the two shared, which makes their parting from one another all the more tragic.
Despite the beautiful and structured shots, Hawke’s overall style verges on a documentary. He pans over the indifferent faces of the audience at the bar, unaware they are witnessing the final hours of Blaze Foley’s life. They are oblivious of the genius before them. The detached directing plays off the stripped and tender songs with potent results.
The casting decision to use real musicians who can act, rather than teach actors how to be musicians, allows the soundtrack to work its magic: with authenticity and no distractions. Dickey and Charlie Sexton (“Boyhood”), in the role of friend and fellow songwriting icon Townes Van Zandt, as well as Kris Kristofferson (“A Star is Born”) don’t have to fake play the guitar or lip sync. Sexton has performed with Bob Dylan, Kristofferson was a member of The Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Dickey has his own album. Together, they provide convincing and moving renditions of folk music that defined an era.
Hawke could have chosen celebrity, trained actors for the main roles (as the cameos from award-winners Sam Rockwell, Richard Linklater and Hawke himself show), but using actual musicians reinforces the poetry and realness of the film. His instincts result in a profound and sensational film in “Blaze,” confirming Hawke as a triple threat.