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Ethan Hawke starts the fire with ‘Blaze’ biopic

August 22, 2018

The rustic-cool Austin of the ’70s and ’80s has been buried under an avalanche of tech-bro ambitions and rampant development, but Ethan Hawke wonderfully taps into that eternal Hippie Hollow spirit in “Blaze,” his warm, engrossing and moving chronicle of the too-short life of under-appreciated Arkansas-born outlaw country singer Blaze Foley.

Considered by those who knew him and his catalog as a brother in musical arms with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and friend Townes Van Zandt, Foley never got the widespread acclaim he was due after he found himself on the wrong end of a gun in Austin during the winter of 1989. Hawke, an Austinite himself, goes a long way in making up for that cultural oversight with a film that no doubt will send many in search of Foley’s authentic and heartfelt songs.

Yet, those expecting a traditional cradle-to-grave biopic need to think again, as the actor-turned-director aims for something far more atmospheric. Hawke, who also has a small part in the film as a radio interviewer, takes a more impressionistic approach, hopscotching back and forth between time periods in Foley’s adult life, all set against the backdrop of his last performance at an Austin bar called The Outhouse.

But style would mean little if there weren’t a character at the heart of the story worth caring about. Foley, as convincingly portrayed by musician Ben Dickey in his first acting role, may have been a shambolic, alcoholic mess of a man with anger and daddy issues, but he could also be sweet, smart, wise and funny — especially with the love of his life, Sybil Rosen (a strong Alia Shawkat) — and a wonderful songwriter. That his work has been covered by Haggard, John Prine and Lyle Lovett certainly is testament to the latter.

Equally as compelling a figure in this telling is Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) who, like Foley, was a poet with a six-string who could ramble on with campfire stories so tall that they can’t help but engender both disbelief and awe. Hawke, who wrote the script with Rosen, based on her memoir, mirrors those meandering anecdotes by not following a strict chronological timeline, underscoring the appeal of story and mood — in both the songs and the characters’ lives — over narrative predictability.

The supporting cast is strong, too. Josh Hamilton (the dad in “Eighth Grade”) shines as the composite character of Z, a musician and friend who tries to bring some sense of stability to Foley’s whirlwind of a life. Equally memorable are brief appearances by Kris Kristofferson as Foley’s father and the trio of Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn as obnoxious oil-industry goofs with more drill sites than sense who want to get into the music biz. Alyndra Seggara, from the band Hurray for the Riff Raff, turns in a short but striking performance as Foley’s sister.

Hawke owes cinematographer Steve Cosens a special thanks as “Blaze,” with its beautifully burnished look evoking the haze of memory, feels like a step back in time. In fact, maybe they went too far, as the Austin they re-create (the film was actually shot in Louisiana) looks more like a tumbledown, honky-tonk Texas town from our collective memory of the ’50s than the Austin of the ’80s, where South by Southwest — which defines modern Austin — was birthed in 1987.

Still, this is an exaggeration and twist of history that Foley, a man no stranger to embellishment, no doubt would have relished.

cary.darling@chron.com

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