The line between filmmaking and art is a fluid one. However, in his latest film Blaze, director Ethan Hawke effortlessly credits this often complicated line. The musical period piece is not only a visual work of art, but the feature film manage often raft moments of true poetry throughout its carefully executed musical sequences. While subject Blaze Foley might not be a household name, film fans should definitely add this movie to their list.
Blaze follows the story of country singer Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) during the 1970s and 1980s. The film, which follows three alternating storylines, depicts the growth of his relationship with actress turned writer Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), also concert Foley gave in the final days of his life, and a radio interview featuring Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) after Foley’s death. Ethan Hawke directed the film and co-wrote the script with the real Sybil Rosen.
What immediately becomes apparent is the strength of Ethan Hawke’s direction. At its roots, Blaze is a musical. The narrative is constructed around a number of musical scenes (performed by Blaze in concert). Hawke’s direction is best described as poetic. The narrative is less a focus in these scenes. Rather, these sequences effectively set not only the scene and the environment, but also the tone of the film as well. Hawke is relatively new to the directing scene, possessing only a handful of credits. However, the poetic nature of his work on Blaze shows that he’s quickly mastering his craft. If you’re looking for cinematic poetry, this is it.
Another strength of Blaze is the deep and layered performances, especiall by Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat as the film’s leads.
Dickey is an untested actor who comes to the film from the world of music. As such, he absolutely kills it in the music sequences. However, he also demonstrates incredible range as an actor. He takes Blaze through some wide-ranging emotional territory as we see the young man mature from a love-struck boy to a hardened and broken musician at the end of the film. This is an incredible performance for the inexperienced actor, and definitely worthy of more conversation as the year continues.
Alia Shawkat’s portrayal of Sybil is equally impressive. Shawkat has graced television screens for years, and is perhaps best known to many for her portrayal of Maeby on the cult-classic television series Arrested Development. Growing up on screen can often be a hard transition for child stars, and with this role, Shawkat firmly establishes herself outside juvenile roles. Much like Blaze, Sybil does a tremendous amount of growing and changing throughout the narrative. Throughout everything, she gives and thoughtful and graceful performance as she handles the material with ease. Here’s hoping we get more work like this from her in the near future.
The movie struggles a bit as it relates to pacing, feeling a bit long towards the end of act two and into act three. Furthermore, the structure of this film might not work with some viewers. There are long stretches structured around the music, so dialogue is minimal in places. In fact, it is Hawke’s camera which does most of the talking. This also compounds for those who aren’t fans of country music. Ardent haters of the music genre… do yourself a favor and stay away from this movie. Music plays an important and vital role in this narrative.
Ethan Hawke’s latest film Blaze is an elegant and poetic exploration of the life of country singer Blaze Foley. Despite being a relative newcomer to filmmaking, Hawke demonstrates a stunning mastery of the camera. The many musical sequences feel intricate yet effortless as they play out on screen. While the film struggles a bit with pacing, Hawke’s work is something which should be seen. Film fans and anyone with an appreciation of cinema should add Blaze to their list.
Blaze debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Stay tuned to Geek Girl Authority for release information.
Check out our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival, here.