Blu-ray Review: Blaze

At some point if you review concerts for a paper, you’ll lose track of a few shows you saw. Someone will ask if you saw a performer and you’ll have a vague yet doubting memory. Maybe you saw the person. Maybe you saw someone cover their song and mention the performer’s name. You could probably do a search of the newspaper’s archives, but then you’ll get sucked into a nostalgic vortex staring at old pages and forget you were looking for that one show. There goes the day. So you merely think you might have seen them and feel good about it. I’ve pondered for decades if I saw Townes Van Zandt play with the Cowboy Junkies or if it was really John Prine. Blaze got me pondering harder than ever as to who I saw that night. While the movie is about singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt figures hard in the tale. So I looked it up otherwise I’d be watching the film with the nagging question blocking the screen. So after pecking around on the internet, it turns out they’re both the right answer since I saw the Cowboy Junkies on two different tours. I didn’t see Blaze Foley. He was already gone by then.

Blaze Foley (The Hottest State‘ Ben Dickey) is a cult performer’s cult performer. You’re not going to hear him on your local Pop Radio Station. He didn’t sell records like Garth Brooks. Odds are your first exposure to Blaze’s music is when you hit play on the Blu-ray menu. He was part of the Austin music scene when the town was an outpost of humanity in the Texas sun. The movie follows him from his life on an artist commune where he meets his muse. Sybil (Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat) is an actress who takes to the musician pretty quick. They set up a home and encourage each other’s talents. She’s the one who suggests that he’s ready to move to Austin and get his career going. The career is extremely bumpy as he seems doomed to never break through. His club dates are dominated by empty tables. They move up to Chicago and get greeted by the cold. At a club he gets written off as stealing a song from John Prine. He doesn’t take kindly to the critical bashing. Blaze has issues of both mental health and substance abuse. His father (Heaven’s Gate‘s Kris Kristofferson) is institutionalized and he seems to be following in his father’s footsteps.

If you’re used to the musical biopics that end with that rousing victory of a massive concert and a hit that we can all hum, you’re not going to get that in Blaze. You don’t even get the minor hit that leads to bad life choices. Although Blaze does make bad choices like when he “signs” to record for a label started by three oil field workers (Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell & Steve Zahn) whose biggest musical connection is knowing a singer’s sister. But at least the song gets him up to New York City to play a club and cross paths with Townes Van Zandt (Boyhood‘s Charlie Sexton). This is important since the movie is framed between Townes recounting his memories of Blaze on a radio show and Blaze’s final show at a nightclub in Austin that was recorded.

Ethan Hawke does a fine job of illuminating the music and life of Blaze Foley without it being aimed at Blaze fanatics. You can’t stare at the screen and go “I remember when Blaze rocked Live Aid!” This is all new to us, but it feels like we should have been there. Ben Dickey gets the deep into the character. His voice works for both on stage and off. He plays the meltdown just right. The big revelation is Charlie Sexton’s performance. Back in the ’80s, Sexton was a teen guitarist who had a bit of a hit with “Beat’s So Lonely” on MTV. Recently he’s been touring as Bob Dylan’s guitarist. Seeing his performance as Townes really wants me to see him in more films. Blaze is the rare musical biopic that introduces us to a performer that we should have known.

The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the ratty nature of the clubs that booked Blaze Foley. You can feel the soaked beer in the tables. The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio Mono. The mix is right and clear so you can hear what the Brain is doing on screen. The movie is subtitled.

Audio Commentary With Director Ethan Hawke makes you realize why Ethan was drawn to spreading the life and music of Blaze Foley.

Behind-The-Scenes Featurette (7:28) explains how Ben Dickey inspired the entire project by singing a Blaze Foley song to Ethan Hawke. They made the film in a rather speedy fashion.

Trailer (2:11) makes people want to tell their tale about Blaze.

Shout! Factory presents Blaze. Directed by Ethan Hawke. Screenplay by: Ethan Hawke & Sybil Rosen. Starring: Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton, Josh Hamilton, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell & Steve Zahn. Rated: R. Running Time: 128 minutes. Released: May 7, 2019.

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