New Biopic 'Blaze' Explores Life Of Texas Outlaw Songwriter

Sep 18, 2018
Originally published on September 19, 2018 3:38 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Most musicians who get the Hollywood biopic treatment are world famous - Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Freddie Mercury. That's not the case with "Blaze." It's the new film written and directed by Ethan Hawke. The movie introduces us to a relatively obscure country singer who died in 1989. But as Tim Greiving reports, it might just make him a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAY PIGEONS")

BLAZE FOLEY: (Singing) This is a song called "Clay Pigeons." Hi, Mom.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: The Arkansas man born is Michael David Fuller adopted the stage name Blaze Foley, claiming to be the illegitimate son of country singer Red Foley and stripper Blaze Starr. As Ethan Hawke learned, Foley had many names and many sides.

ETHAN HAWKE: And it is a mystery of Blaze Foley that half the people you meet are incredibly angry at him still. He knocked over my beer. He threw a beer in my face. And half of the people would say, oh, Blaze is such a sweetie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAY PIGEONS")

BEN DICKEY: (Singing) Smoking cigarettes in the last seat, try to hide my sorrow from the people I meet and get along with it all.

GREIVING: Foley grew up in Texas singing gospel songs with this family. The singer at 6'2" forever walked with a limp from the polio he had as a child. He was a wandering troubadour who like drugs and drink, and he got thrown out of nearly every bar in Texas. Lyle Lovett used to open for Foley in Houston.

LYLE LOVETT: I mean, he was a big, broad-shouldered, big man. I mean, he looked like he could've played football, you know, but a gentle giant, a gentle spirit.

GREIVING: Foley cut a few indie records that never took off, and he was often seen with his good buddy Townes Van Zandt. Then in 1989, he was shot in an altercation while defending an elderly friend. Foley died at age 39, which is where you'd think his story would end except that his songs didn't die. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard both covered Foley's heartbreaker "If I Could Only Fly."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD ONLY FLY")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) If I could only fly...

GREIVING: Actor and director Ethan Hawke heard Foley's music a few years ago but didn't know much about the man until his friend Lewis Black recommended a book.

HAWKE: He said, well, have you read his wife's book? And I said, that guy had a wife?

GREIVING: Sybil Rosen wrote about their wild relationship in her book, "Living In The Woods Of A Tree." Ethan Hawke was so enthralled he approached her about turning it into a movie. Together, they co-wrote "Blaze." For the title role, Hawke turned to his buddy, a singer-songwriter named Ben Dickey, who'd never acted before in his life.

DICKEY: On New Year's Eve of 2015, he looks at me and was like, you should play Blaze Foley in a movie. And then as we got more excited with libations and such, he started screaming about it a little bit and pounding his foot on the floor about it a little bit and became hypnotized in a way.

HAWKE: I've been watching Ben play music for more than a decade, and I've been acting since I was 13, and I knew Ben had what it took. I just know it like I know that the sun is going to come up tomorrow, that he in this role would do something magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLAZE")

DICKEY: (As Blaze Foley) And I don't want to be a star. I wants to be a legend.

ALIA SHAWKAT: (As Sybil) What's the difference, Deputy?

DICKEY: (As Blaze Foley) Well, stars burn out 'cause they shine for themself.

GREIVING: The film jumps back and forth through time the way memory does, and Hawke let most of the songs play out in their entirety, like "If I Could Only Fly."

HAWKE: In Sybil's memoir, it's very beautiful. She talks about Blaze being out in the road and leaving her there in Chicago when he had brought her there and how frustrating that was. And he comes back after being gone, and he plays her "If I Could Only Fly" and she knows that he's arrived as a mature artist, something he was longing to do. She also feels in her gut that they're breaking up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLAZE")

DICKEY: (As Blaze Foley, singing) If I could only fly, if I could only fly, I'd bid this place goodbye.

GREIVING: Hawke felt the songs told the story better than any dialogue could. Ultimately, they were why he felt Blaze Foley deserved his own movie.

HAWKE: The lyrics are like little razor blades chopping up life so that you can - like, you know, when you cut into a globe and it shows you the Earth's crust. It's like it's doing that to people.

GREIVING: Ben Dickey feels the same.

DICKEY: You could play his music for somebody that didn't speak English, and I promise it would still find its way in just as easy as if someone who read it as a poem.

GREIVING: Sybil Rosen isn't sure what Blaze himself would have thought of this whole biopic thing.

SYBIL ROSEN: I think he might have been a little skeptical, actually. But I do believe that wherever his molecules are located now that he can look at this and be really happy about it because of the tenderness and respect that is given to his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD ONLY FLY")

FOLEY: (Singing) If I could only fly...

GREIVING: And maybe it's not too late for Blaze Foley to find a new audience. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD ONLY FLY")

FOLEY: (Singing) I'd bid this place goodbye, come and be with you. But I can hardly...[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: We mistakenly said the title of the book is “Living in the Woods of a Tree.” In fact, it is “Living in the Woods in a Tree.”] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.