Ethan Hawke loves music. And he enjoys being in Houston, having filmed large portions of the movies Reality Bites and Boyhood here. But sitting onstage recently at Rockfeller’s nightclub for an invite-only concert/fireside chat/Q&A about his new movie, he does have an issue with film biographies about musicians. Which is what his said new project is all about.
“Movies like the ones about Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or even the one I did about Chet Baker, they’re always about a famous musician. Subtextually, they are saying this musician was interesting only because they were famous. And that’s a lie,” he says.
“And then you always have the obligatory They Get Discovered Scene, the Fame Goes to His Head Scene, and the I’m Just Like Everybody Else Scene—which is not true because they’re rich! And that struck me as [false]. The real enemy is not the trials of success, but the trails of bitterness.”
Hawke’s new film is Blaze, which he co-wrote and directed. It’s technically a biopic of the late Austin-based singer/songwriter Blaze Foley, but is deeper, more intuitive, and more rawly emotional than most others in the same genre.
The real Blaze Foley’s career was brief, jagged, and the epitome of a cautionary tale. Though lumped in with the Outlaw Country movement, he had far more in common with artists like John Prine (who would record Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”), Guy Clark, and running/drinking/drugging buddy Townes Van Zandt than Willie or Waylon. Bumping around the country playing dive bars, he could be a sweet, generous bear one moment, and an out-of-control, guitar-destroying drunk the next.
He was also a master self-saboteur with his behavior and substance abuse problems, and seemed to have no luck even when he did have luck. He pissed off club owners by showing up late or playing pitifully, then would turn in an amazing performance the next night. The master tapes for his debut record were confiscated by the DEA when the producer was busted, and ones for his second were stolen out of the car he was living in at the time. Some of this material has eked over the years, but his short set Live at the Austin Outhouse is likely his widest-known effort.
Things began to look up for Foley when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded Foley’s tune “If I Could Only Fly” for a duets album. But in a bizarre 1989 incident, Foley (likely drunk) was shot and killed in Austin at the age of 39, trying to protect an elderly friend from his son’s frequent appropriation of social security money. The son was acquitted in self-defense, even though his own father contradicted his version of events.
Playing Foley in the movie – and incredibly given his stellar performance his first acting role – is musician Ben Dickey. He and Hawke have known each other for years since their wives are lifelong best friends and were both involved with Blaze. When Hawke got interested in making a movie after reading the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: A Memoir of Blaze Foley by Foley’s widow Sybil Rosen, he told Dickey that he “should play Blaze Foley.” Which morphed into “you are playing Blaze Foley.” Judges at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival seemed to agree, awarding Dickey a Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting.
“The book was not a deification, it was about the mysteries of love and the weirdness of trying to live a creative life,” Hawke offers. He adds that the real Rosen was on set every day, and both Hawke and Dickey noted a number of “weird” situations where they felt the spirit of Foley. Including when Dickey insists that he heard Foley’s voice address him directly. Twice.
“I heard the voice clear as a bell like he was in the room, and it made my hairs stand up,” he recalls. “But I gave myself permission to be open to his presence, occupying the space of somebody that was gone.”
For his part, Dickey was first really exposed to Foley’s music more than a decade ago via his John Prine-loving father, and the pair would learn to play “Clay Pigeons” together. “First of all he had a badass name!” Dickey laughs from the Rockefeller’s stage, before discussing becoming Foley not only in the acting parts of the movie, but the musical performances as well.
“I didn’t want to do an impression, even his talking voice. I did want to capture the simplicity of the music, and the duality of its sophistication as well,” Dickey says. “You get into this loop that he does. It’s not easy, and I wanted to get really close to it. What Blaze is doing with his guitar and voice is a honed instrument, a honed edge, and his lifestyle made it sharp.”
Most of the songs on the Blaze soundtrack (available from Light in the Attic Records) were recorded right on the set. The soundtrack includes songs by Foley, Van Zandt, and Lucinda Williams – whose “Drunken Angel” is her tribute to her friend Foley.
Also onstage at Rockefeller’s with Hawke and Dickey and lending his support (and performance) is country music star and former Houstonian Jack Ingram. He says he shares Hawke’s skepticism in one area, but gives an unabashed thumbs-up to Blaze.
“I have been really reticent when it comes to movies about music,” he says. “They get it wrong. They cry about shit that doesn’t matter. But ten minutes into this movie, I was in all the way. I don’t know if people who aren’t into music will understand it, but people understand things with heart.”
Ingram—who played Rockfeller’s many times in its heyday—looks around and offers “I don’t know what happened to this place, but it looks the same!” He mentions opening shows for artists like Joe Ely, Hal Ketchum, and Merle Haggard, to whom he dedicates his and Dickey’s duet on “Silver Wings.” Blaze Foley himself also played Rockefeller’s. At the event, Austin’s Tequila 512 bottlers offer free tequila sunrises – one of Foley’s favorite refreshments.
And in blurring the lines further between musicians and actors, Hawke cast Texas music royalty Charlie Sexton (in an incredible performance) to play the worn and fragile Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson has a couple of scenes as Foley’s mentally fractured father, and real-Foley friend Gurf Morlix plays bass in the movie Foley’s band.
Dickey does looks less intimidating than the real Blaze Foley, who in pictures sports big, heavy eyebrows and a slit-eyed look that could kill. Dickey is more cuddly bear than killer bear. But there is attention to detail – from his approximation of Foley’s limp, to the costume as detailed down to the child’s belt from the movie E.T. that Foley sported around the brim of Dickey’s film hat.
The next night after Rockefeller’s at the film’s screening at the River Oaks Theatre, Dickey tells a hilarious story how Foley’s real-life niece – who as a child owned the E.T. belt that “Uncle Blaze” stole from her – took it upon herself to find an authentic one on eBay to give to Dickey for the film. Dickey's costumes are also covered with silver duct tape, which Foley eccentrically used often on his clothes (one documentary on him is actually called Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah).
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But outside of the music, the heart of the movie is really the love story and relationship between Blaze and Sybil (played by Alia Shawkat). In fact, Sybil ends up being the movie’s emotional anchor as she variously attempts and fails to understand and be a wife to an uncontainable spirit.
During one scene that takes place early in their relationship as they ride in the back of a pickup truck through the Texas woods, Shawkat-as-Rosen asks her then-boyfriend if he wants to be a famous country musician. “I don’t want to be famous,” Dickey-as-Foley responds. “I wants to be a legend!”
And with Blaze, Ethan Hawke and Ben Dickey have crafted a film that will certainly burnish that legend.
Blaze opens August 24 in Houston exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre. Visit BlazeTheMovie.com for more information.