Biopics of musicians usually fall into one of two patterns: They either chronicle how incidents from that person’s life transformed into songs, or they show what a trainwreck of a life that person lived.
Sometimes you get both at once, as in the case of “Blaze,” in which director Ethan Hawke introduces us to the irascible singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, whose life was the saddest country song he ever wrote.
Hawke knows his way around a musical biopic, having starred in one of the better ones, 2015’s “Born to Be Blue,” in which he played a semi-fictionalized version of the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. With “Blaze,” Hawke enlists Foley’s lady love, Sybil Rosen, as a co-screenwriter to adapt Rosen’s memoir, and the results are more intimate and less gossipy than most biopics.
Sure, they hit the standard career mileposts, as Foley — sensitively played by musician and first-time actor Ben Dickey — meets Sybil, played by Alia Shawkat, in a Georgia artists’ community in 1975. Blaze hits the road to perform, with Sybil the supportive girlfriend, until they ultimately reach Austin, Texas.
Success seems always just around the corner for Blaze, as he attracts a circle of musician friends including Townes Van Zandt (played by Charlie Sexton). But as he gets tantalizingly close to a recording contract, waved in front of him by three record-company cowboys (played by Hawke pals Richard Linklater, Steve Zahn and Sam Rockwell), Blaze sabotages himself with his boozing and his habit of getting into bar fights with his audience.
Hawke captures Blaze and Sybil’s romance in gauzy golden tones, a love affair crystallized in a Terrence Malick magic-hour loop. But Blaze’s obstinate personality, his unwillingness to change to suit anyone else — his friends, the record company or Sybil — ultimately becomes his undoing, and Hawke depicts those moments with gritty realism.
Dickey is a real find, and he brings a musician’s soulfulness to this lived-in portrayal. He’s beautifully matched by Shawkat, who’s best known as a comic actor (think of her in “Arrested Development” or “Search Party”) but proves her versatility as Blaze’s supportive but no-bull lover. Their collaboration, like Hawke’s with Rosen, makes “Blaze” a biography that’s more than the sum of its well-worn parts.
Opened August 17 in select cities; opens Friday, Sept. 28 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and drug use. Running time: 129 minutes.