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Review: Ethan Hawke's 'Blaze,' a shaggy, digressive ode to late country-blues singer

Review: Ethan Hawke's 'Blaze,' a shaggy, digressive ode to late country-blues singer
Ben Dickey, a singer making his acting debut, and Alia Shawkat in the movie "Blaze." (IFC Films)

“Blaze,” director and co-writer Ethan Hawke’s rambling, low-key look at country-blues singer Blaze Foley (played by folk-rock musician Ben Dickey in a craftily immersive acting debut), is a film for the most patient and mellow of viewers. Although this overlong, shaggy slice of musical Americana has its many rewards, especially for fans of the kind of sad and soulful tunes that form the film’s backbone, it may simply prove too slow and idiosyncratic for those used to more propulsive, accessibly told biopics — or movies in general.

Nonetheless, Hawke, coming off a trifecta of superb film performances in “Maudie,” “First Reformed” and “Juliet, Naked,” shows a clear passion for his subject as well as for the often singular, eccentric route by which creative expression finds its voice.

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That Hawke so closely aligns his cinematic style, inventive as it is, with the story’s disorderly, scruffily offbeat characters and settings is both a strength and a liability. His kaleidoscopic, at times ghostly, approach proves a valiant if studied effort, one that occasionally calls to mind Terrence Malick’s 2017 freeform music drama, “Song to Song.”

For the uninitiated, the Arkansas-born, Texas-raised Blaze Foley (née Michael David Fuller) was a singer and songwriter who, from the mid-1970s until his 1989 death at age 39 (he was shot in an argument with a friend’s volatile son), was part of the Texas outlaw music movement, a raw, realistic subgenre that spawned such better-known talents as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Foley’s songs, including “Clay Pigeons” and “If I Could Only Fly,” have been covered by the likes of Haggard, Nelson, John Prine and Lyle Lovett among others. (Foley was previously examined in the 2011 documentary “Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah.”)

The script by Hawke and Foley’s onetime wife and muse, Sybil Rosen (based on her 2008 memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”), swings, glides, leaps and overlaps among four time periods. The first is a wraparound radio interview (featuring Hawke as a DJ seen only from behind) with Foley’s friends and collaborators, the ill-fated Townes Van Zandt (musician Charlie Sexton, quite good) and the fictional composite, Zee (Josh Hamilton), who offer a posthumous retelling of Foley’s stormy life.

Another story strand follows Foley’s unlikely relationship — from meeting to marriage to breakup — with the Jewish Rosen (an uncommonly affecting Alia Shawkat), an aspiring actress and playwright. Theirs is a deep and inspiring connection, solidified while living in a Georgia treehouse, until the freewheeling, self-destructive Foley’s boozing and general iconoclasm get in the way. (The real-life Rosen plays her own mother in an awkwardly amusing “meet the parents” scene.)

Then there’s the recording session of the musician’s last album, “Live at the Austin Outhouse,” held in the legendary, living room-ish bar, which presents a heavily bearded Foley singing and philosophizing to a barely-there audience. That this part takes place mere weeks before his death, which is chronicled in the film’s fourth section set at a rundown South Austin house, makes Foley’s musical stylings that much more haunting and poignant.

Dickey deftly rises to the physical demands of his part: He channels the effects of Foley’s childhood polio with a credibly shambling gait, speaks in a low, twangy rumble that urges you to pay extra attention (particularly during his protracted anecdotes) and sings Foley’s aching songs with a moody and heartfelt authenticity.

But for all of Foley’s larger-than-life aspects (“I don’t want to be a star, I want to be a legend!”), the portrayal here is often undermined by the character’s perpetually florid or playful dialogue that evokes song lyrics or poetry stanzas (some really are) more than actual adult human speech. (He’s a guy who calls his stomach his “spaghetti house.”)

The script’s phraseology, true to Foley though it may be, keeps him at a kind of mythical arm’s-length, depriving us of some of the straighter answers and feelings inquiring minds may want to know. We don’t need conventionality as much as connection; perhaps a more direct and involving path into the man himself.

Legendary outlaw country artist Kris Kristofferson stirringly pops in as Foley’s senile dad, with Hurray for the Riff Raff vocalist Alynda Lee Segarra as Foley’s spiritual sister. But Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater feel wedged in as a trio of Texas oilmen with a half-baked plan to invest in Foley’s career.

The Louisiana-filmed movie looks great thanks in large part to the work of cinematographer Steve Cosens (he also shot 2015’s “Born to Be Blue,” which starred Hawke as jazzman Chet Baker), who infuses the picture with its gorgeous, honey-like burnish. Production designer Thomas Hayek and art director Elissabeth Blofson vividly help recreate the film’s many Texas and Deep South dreamscapes, drop-ins and dives. Costume designer Lee Kyle does fine work as well.

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‘Blaze’

Rated: R, for language throughout, some sexual content and drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 14, ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles

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