Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat are excellent in “Blaze.” (Courtesy IFC Films)

‘Blaze’ tells little-known story of country great

“Blaze,” directed by Ethan Hawke, is a free-flowing, honey-colored, emotionally satisfying ramble of a movie about Blaze Foley, the singer-songwriter who, unlike the big-name peers who have praised and sung his tunes, has remained largely unknown as a major country-music talent.

Hawke eschews the familiar three-act structure, exposition and dramatic crescendos in the movie, opening Friday at the Emarbarcadero in San Francisco. He skips to and fro through about 15 years of his protagonist’s life, dramatizing important moments and connections.

For the uninitiated: Blaze Foley (played by musician Ben Dickey) was part of the outlaw-country music movement. His songs, which include “If I Could Only Fly” and “Clay Pigeons,” have been covered by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and John Prine. He achieved some success, but career pressures and booze impeded him. He died in 1989, age 39, during an altercation with a friend’s explosive son.

Written by Hawke and Sybil Rosen, who was Blaze Foley’s partner, and based on a Rosen memoir, the story alternates among several plot strands, set in different time periods.

One involves the relationship of Blaze and aspiring actress Sibyl (Alia Shawkat). The two meet in Georgia and live blissfully in a cabin in the woods. They move to Austin to launch Blaze’s career. Boozing and carousing in the bar scene, Blaze betrays Sibyl.

Another piece of the drama transpires at Austin’s Outhouse bar, where Blaze gives a performance, and has long-winded talks.

Hawke also imagines the events surrounding Blaze’s death and has included a posthumous radio-show segment in which singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and a screenwriter-invented pal called Zee (Josh Hamilton) reminisce.

Wonderful songs, lots of them, written by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, bring everything together. They trigger flashbacks in which bits of Blaze’s life play out — Blaze and Sybil visiting Blaze’s now-ailing abusive father (Kris Kristofferson) and religious sister (Alynda Segarra), for example.

With its 128-minute running time, the movie risks becoming tedious. The drama takes its time to unfold and lingers among argumentative drunks. The Blaze-Townes relationship, a partnership in substance abuse as well as musical collaboration, needs more development.

But Hawke’s unconventional methods result in a vital, multidimensional, moving consideration of an artist.

Dickey, while not a powerhouse, makes Blaze Foley a captivating blend of musical genius, romantic dreamer, semi-Zen philosopher and self-defeating inebriate.

His scenes with Shawkat’s Sibyl add up to a beautiful love story. Shawkat supplies so much intelligence, likability and heart, we understand how Sybil still dominates Blaze’s thoughts years after the two split.

The pair’s talking-in-bed scenes suggest the walking-and-talking material in Richard Linklater’s sparkling “Before” trilogy, which Hawke co-created.

Linklater makes a cameo appearance in “Blaze,” as one of three record execs (Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn are the others). Sexton, meanwhile, is darkly charismatic as the tall-tale-spinning Van Zandt.

REVIEW
Blaze
Three stars
Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton, Josh Hamilton
Written by: Ethan Hawke, Sybil Rosen
Directed by: Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

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