Before Ethan Hawke’s Blaze film was released, the name Blaze Foley was largely unknown. Hawke hopes to change that.
On Sunday, October 6, Ethan Hawke made a personal appearance at a movie screening at the Byrd Theatre. Hawke is famous for his decades-long career as an actor, and is currently in the Richmond area filming the upcoming Showtime limited series The Good Lord Bird. However, Hawke didn’t come to the Byrd to discuss any of that. Instead, he came to talk about Blaze Foley.
In 2017, Rolling Stone published an article titled “100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time.” On that list, artists ranged from all-time legends like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton to more recent game-changers like Taylor Swift, Shania Twain, and Garth Brooks.
However, Blaze Foley’s name did not appear on that list. Despite his impact on several of the groundbreaking artists listed, Foley’s is a name lost to time. Born Michael David Fuller, Foley only released one album during his lifetime, though his songs were later recorded by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, and other well-known country artists.
Foley endured trials throughout his life. While pursuing his goal of becoming a famous musician, Foley faced polio, alcoholism and drug use, physical abuse, and a failed marriage. Ultimately, the success that Foley did obtain was short-lived. While trying to protect his friend, Concho January, Foley was shot and killed on January 31, 1989. He was 39 years old.
After his death, Foley’s legacy was initially told through those who knew him, including his wife, Sybil Rosen, and country artist Townes Van Zandt. Rosen would eventually write a memoir about the time she spent with Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. In the memoir, Rosen recounts the history of how the couple met, and the events leading up to their short-lived marriage.
During that time, Rosen became Foley’s muse for his songwriting, showcasing the good and bad of their relationship. Songs like the widely covered “If I Could Only Fly” and the hidden gem “I Should Have Been Home” detailed Foley’s struggle with alcoholism, drug use, and staying faithful while trying to become a successful musician.
When Rosen published her book in 2008, she couldn’t have foreseen that a decade later, her work would become the basis for a full-length feature film. Hawke, an Austin native, took an interest in Foley’s story, writing and directing a biopic based on the events described in Rosen’s book. It was that 2018 film, Blaze, that Hawke presented and discussed with the Byrd Theatre crowd earlier this month.
“It is about Blaze Foley, but it’s also about the intangibility of the unknown,” said Todd Schall-Vess, general manager of the Byrd Theatre, describing Hawke’s film. “The ‘Blaze here is not just Blaze Foley, it’s the ‘Blaze’ of fame, the ‘Blaze’ of the agony of not being recognized, the ‘Blaze’ of wanting so much for it to be just out of your reach.”
Blaze premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Hawke’s friend and musician Ben Dickey as Foley, Arrested Development actress Alia Shawkat as Rosen, and musician Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt. The movie also features cameos from Rosen, who played her own mother, Ethan Hawke as a radio host and country legend, and Kris Kristofferson as Foley’s father, Edwin Fuller. For Dickey, it was his first major acting role.
“The magic was Ben finding Blaze Foley,” Hawke said. “For his first [acting] job, he won ‘Best Actor’ at the Sundance Film Festival.”
As the director of Blaze, Hawke uses Foley’s music to tell his story. Right before his death, Foley had recorded a performance at the Austin Outhouse — later released as Live At The Austin Outhouse — which Hawke uses as a basis to begin the tale. There are also radio segments featuring Van Zandt, and one of Foley’s closest friends, Zee (Josh Hamilton), telling Foley’s story through their point of view.
While his life was cut short, Foley’s music and his legacy lived on. Merle Haggard covered “If I Could Only Fly” twice, first Willie Nelson on their 1987 collaborative album Seashores of Old Mexico, then again on his 2000 solo album, which was named after the song. Van Zandt wrote a song in Foley’s honor called “Blaze’s Blues” in 1990. Country artist Lucinda Williams even wrote a tribute song for Foley, titled “Drunken Angel,” for her 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
With Blaze, Hawke hopes to bring Foley to mainstream consciousness, taking him beyond the inner circle of country music legends who’ve kept his songs alive since he was killed 30 years ago. And the film is a great step in that direction, showing that Foley’s life embodied the true spirit of country music. Beyond today’s surface-level Nashville pop country, which focuses more on trucks and parties than any of the struggles that were traditionally found at the heart of the genre, Blaze depicts Foley in moments of sadness, anger, and frustration — the emotions that inspire some of the best country songs.
Hawke’s film does justice to Foley’s life and music, and helps to give this unknown country music legend some of the well-deserved recognition he never achieved during his lifetime.
If you missed the Blaze screening at The Byrd Theatre, the film is currently available on iTunes and Showtime’s streaming service.
Top Image via IFC Films