The great singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt used to say there are two kinds of music: the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Both are on full, florid display in “Blaze,” an absorbing, illuminating film about the late musician Blaze Foley.
Foley isn’t a household name; he’s best known as the subject of Van Zandt’s own song “Blaze’s Blues” and Lucinda Williams’s “Drunken Angel.” (Foley also wrote “Clay Pigeons,” most famously covered by John Prine). But Foley comes charmingly, roaringly, maddeningly into his own by way of a masterful title performance by Arkansas-Philly musician Ben Dickey, who doesn’t so much portray as channel the real-life version of his character through equal parts homage and inhabitation. Inspired by “Living in the Woods in a Tree,” a memoir by Foley’s wife, Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” chronicles the couple’s idyllic love affair, Foley’s promising but often self-sabotaging career as a performer and writer and, finally, his death in 1989, when he was shot in Austin.
Directed by Ethan Hawke from a script he wrote with Rosen, “Blaze” is structured around a radio interview in which Van Zandt (played to near-perfection by Austin guitarist Charlie Sexton) and a composite sideman character named Zee (Josh Hamilton) recall the influence their colleague had on proto-Americana culture. Toggling between the interview and flashbacks to Foley’s final show, which turned into the recording “Live at the Austin Outhouse,” Hawke tells the story in impressionistic, elliptical swoops, revisiting episodes in Foley’s life while one of his songs plays over them. For the most part, the story is one of once-charmed, now-wistful romance, as a younger Foley falls in love with Rosen, acted with down-to-earth equanimity by Alia Shawkat. From the self-described treehouse in Georgia, where the two live in blissful, Edenic isolation, they make the move to Austin, the better for Foley to be discovered.
He is. But he also discovers some things himself, including a penchant for alcohol, cocaine and carousing; the strains of the road and its beckoning temptations; and a love-hate relationship with audiences he’s as likely to alienate as entertain. Hawke, who directed the terrific documentary “Seymour: An Introduction,” about pianist Seymour Bernstein, brings a natural affinity for music to “Blaze,” in which he gracefully integrates Foley’s witty, literate, cosmically inclined songs into the narrative, often following anonymous side characters with his camera as a way of linking past and present.
Anyone who’s seen the superb rom-com “Juliet, Naked,” in which Hawke appears as an iconic folk singer, will appreciate the karmic balance of his making a movie about just the kind of storied cult figure the earlier movie gently lampoons. “Blaze” fairly stands accused of declining to probe the myth too harshly. But it possesses the kind of raw authenticity and ambered nostalgia that fans of Foley, Van Zandt, Williams and their peers often worship to the point of parody. That’s thanks to Hawke’s sensitive direction and his wisdom in casting Dickey, Shawkat and Sexton, each of whom wisely dispenses with hero-worship and instead plays a flawed, utterly grounded human being. (As for the musical performances, they are eerily on point, including a heartbreaking version of “Pancho & Lefty” that Sexton and Dickey perform in an addled but weirdly perfect duet.)
With his bearlike physicality and unstudied air of emotional honesty and vulnerability, Dickey commands the screen from start to finish in “Blaze,” making even the film’s most self-pitying asides not just tolerable but also full of genuine regret. We’ve seen the story of rock-and-roll dissolution and self-destruction before. We’ll see it again soon enough, on an even glitzier scale, in “A Star Is Born.” But “Blaze” revisits a familiar tale in a way that’s both ancient and new, introducing most viewers to an artist who clearly deserves to be memorialized. Van Zandt, who died eight years after Foley, would most likely approve, as well: “Blaze” strikes that rare, commendable balance between the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.
R. At Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas. Contains strong language throughout, some sexual content and drug use. 128 minutes.