Ethan Hawke’s Blaze tells the story of an enigmatic country musician in a delicate and daring biopic

Photo courtesy of Houston Public Media

Jeff Turner

Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, “Blaze” is a masterstroke that shocks the mind in more ways than one. It’s a soulful, lyrical effort that more often resembles a poem than a cinematic effort, yet it’s cinematic in the most down to earth ways.

Hawke has worked with directors Richard Linklater and Sidney Lumet and was smart enough to rip off the best attributes of both. There’s a lot of Terrence Malick here, too; the movie feels like raw Texas and it doesn’t even seem relevant to have ever been to Texas.

The movie is a biopic of the enigmatic country musician Blaze Foley (played by a phenomenal Ben Dickey), and it follows his music career in medias res in Georgia. Foley is credited as a builder of the Texas outlaw music movement that also spawned Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

The movie details his relationship and eventual relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, building on her great work in projects such as “Green Room”) and shows Blaze as an alien–a puzzle piece out of place. The opening scene does well to reinforce this as we see his producer kick him out because he wasn’t making music so much as rambling.

The movie works strongest with its musical performances and when Hawke allows the characters to chill and hang out. The party scenes felt fun; Hawke is skilled at making the viewer want to be there. The movie itself plays like a series of snapshots, the beautiful cinematography by Steve Cosens giving the film the feel of an old photo album.

Dickey is an equally gifted performer as well. It’s tough in Hollywood biopics to cast a famous musician only to dub the actor they choose with someone else. It’s self-defeating, but Hawke goes small enough and remains oriented around the actor’s abilities to actually sing, and it works well.

The beats of “Blaze” eventually begin to resemble a folk ballad. This towering bear of a man, his marriage and life in a tree house, and eventually sacrificing that in belief of a dream, only to be shot down by a rogue villain. Hawke creates a great biopic here not by going for journalism but by going for poetry.

“Blaze” is a movie that surprises and that grows in the soul like a tree. It’s a cast of, barring some cameos by the likes of Sam Rockwell, Richard Linklater and Hawke himself, almost exclusively unknown actors.

This is a film about a true Texas legend that could have only been made by someone who had a deep love for the state. Hawke spent a lot of his childhood with his father in Fort Worth and credits his first concert, a trip to Austin to see Willie Nelson in 1976, in the press notes for “Blaze,” as well as his love for Country Western music.

Hawke’s vision as director is to show the world this little fragment of his state and to display his intense affection for it and persuade the viewer of its greatness as well. With “Blaze,” he is successful.