Ethan Hawke’s ‘Blaze’ spotlights a mysterious master of the ‘outlaw country’ music movement
In 1976, “Wanted! The Outlaws,” featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser was released by RCA Victor. It would become the first country music album to be certified platinum — an achievement which itself certified the anti-Nashville movement of “outlaw country” as a musical force to be reckoned with.
“So many of the people involved with that movement were one way or another considered legends,” said writer Sybil Rosen. “But Blaze is a legend that no one’s ever heard of.
“Apparently, that’s about to change.”
“Blaze,” the Ethan Hawke-directed biopic partly based on Rosen’s memoir (“Living in the Woods in a Tree”), opens in Los Angeles on Friday and concerns a singer-songwriter who is less legend than myth: Blaze Foley, the ‘70s-‘80s Arkansas-born, Austin, Texas-bred poet and reprobate whose mysterious murder in 1989 made him country’s version of bluesman Robert Johnson.
As self-destructive as he was talented, and not averse to “addressing” violence (as Rosen put it), he was for decades a mysterious figure. Or, as Hawke calls him, “the Snuffleupagus of outlaw country.”
“Because most people have never seen or heard of him,” Hawke said in New York, “you have to be a hardcore geek. Townes van Zandt opens up one vein, and when you go down it, you find Guy Clark and Steve Earle and a little deeper, you start hearing this myth of Blaze. Before the internet, you couldn’t find his music at all. John Prine covered ‘Clay Pigeons’ and Willie and Merle [Haggard] covered ‘If I Could Only Fly,’ but those were the only two songs I really knew about.”
Hawke’s initial motivation for a film came out of his friendship with Ben Dickey, a singer-songwriter who shares a home state and a number of musical influences with Foley, and whom Hawke saw as a perfect on-screen embodiment of Blaze.
“When Ethan first brought it up to me, I thought he was just being my friend and trying to encourage me,” Dickey said. “Kinda letting me know ‘You could do something like that.’ ” The singer didn’t really think it would happen, until a project Hawke had planned for fall 2016 fell through, and “he shifted gears,” Dickey said.
“Plus, we had read Sybil’s book,” he added. “And I’d learned a lot of Blaze’s songs. And then Ethan finally told me, ‘We have the money. You can’t turn back now.’ ”
Dickey, who is making his film debut in the project, won a special jury prize for acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere.
Starring opposite the big screen newcomer as Sybil is Alia Shawkat, an actress with a raft of credits (“Arrested Development,” “Search Party”), but they’re surrounded by unknowns. The guitarist Charlie Sexton plays a roguish Townes Van Zandt; Rosen plays her own mother; several other parts are cast with non-actors.
“If you’re making a movie about folk music, you have to make a folk movie,” Hawke said. “If you made a fat, pompous movie about Blaze Foley, then you’re an idiot. It had to be made with duct tape and love.”
One well-known face who appears, albeit briefly, is Kris Kristofferson. “Kris is a good example of what I’m talking about,” Hawke said. “I’m asking these people to act, to take huge risks. A bad music movie would be a nightmare. So I was asking a lot of them.
“Kris represents, in a lot of ways, a kind of ‘70s spirit, an outlaw poet and a musician turned actor, which is what I was asking them to do. Who’s going to play Blaze Foley’s father? Why not the original musician-actor? Plus, I had a legit legend who was the spiritual patriarch of the film.”
He also had a woman who knew Blaze Foley better than anyone on set every day: Rosen’s time with Foley predated his relationship with Van Zandt, as well as whatever meager success Foley’s music enjoyed before his death.
She said watching the events unfold — their last meeting, for instance, which took place at the Lone Star Roadhouse in 1980, before Foley’s disastrous gig opening for Kinky Friedman — was wrenching. They hadn’t told each other of their romantic involvement with others.
I’m asking these people to act, to take huge risks. A bad music movie would be a nightmare. So I was asking a lot of them.
“I also didn’t know he had just meant Townes and that was in motion,” said Rosen. “If you want to look at the whole thing metaphysically, there’s a connection between him letting go of me and making that friendship with Townes. He’s making that choice to go into the darkness.”
There was much darkness in Foley’s life, which ended in a half-lit melodrama during which he was fatally shot by a man named Carey January, on Feb. 1, 1989 in Austin. Foley was 39. January was acquitted of first-degree murder by reason of self-defense.
“He lives out in L.A.,” Rosen said in New York. “He’s in the phone book; I’m not revealing anything secret.” Once, when she and Kevin Triplett, director of the 2011 documentary “Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah,” were both in Los Angeles, “we went and kind of parked under his window for a couple of minutes. I don’t know why. I have tremendous feeling for Carey. I don’t bear any malice towards him, to be honest. It was a tragedy for everyone involved.”
And a tragedy for American music, according to “Blaze,” which Hawke said has been well-received by the musicians who’ve seen it. (The film opened in Austin back in August.)
“That’s the thing I’m most happy about,” the director said. “Musicians usually hate movies about music because they’re usually so phony. Let’s face it: Every biopic you ever see about a musician is about somebody who won 10,000 Grammys. In reality, most musicians’ lives are spent battling absolute indifference. So with the subject matter alone, I’m at a better place with musicians than most movies.”
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