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Blaze

The Myrna Loy

(R)

Grade: B

Montanans have a critical choice to make this November week: Rock or country?

At the Cinemark, we can stand near the stage at Wembley stadium in London to wave our hands in the air as Queen launches into “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

At The Myrna, we can head for a dive bar in Austin, Texas, to hear Blaze Foley sing songs later recorded by Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett. One online country music site called Foley “The Outlaw Legend you may not know about but should.”

Foley was close friends with legendary singer/writer Townes Van Zandt, who wrote “Pancho and Lefty.” Van Zandt famously said that Foley “only went crazy once. Decided to stay." The Van Zandt song, “Blaze’s Blues” is a tribute to his buddy: “You know, I’m gonna miss you when I’m gone.”

“Pancho and Lefty,” made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, described outlaws on the run, in words people have said captured the self-destructive lives of Van Zandt and his buddy Blaze Foley. They were “living on the road, my friend” wearing “skin like iron” and their breath “as hard as kerosene.”

Neither of them could stay sober or focused long enough to ascend to the heights of fame their talents deserved, although Van Zandt at least could see the mountain top from his last base camp.

Ethan Hawke’s biopic “Blaze” is both a tribute to these writer/singers as well as a tattered postcard to country music. The appeal of country lies, in part, in its unfiltered descent into blue collar struggles – telling honest and dark tales of loves lost and bottles emptied.

Rascal Flatts repeated the old country joke about what happens when we play a country song backwards: We get our house back, our dog back, our best friend Jack back, our truck back, not to mention our first and second wives.

Funny lines, but they trivialize the way the best of country, particularly classic country, gets uncomfortably close to the core of our existence. Not all dreams come true, not all relationships last.

Blaze Foley’s time with Sybil was as sweet a friendship as one could ever hope to have. But Blaze blew it, yet again.

From the road, he wrote a song to her: “If I could only fly, I'd bid this place goodbye to come and be with you, But I can hardly stand and I got nowhere to run.”

Merle Haggard made that song the lead single of an album. Merle knew how good Blaze was.

The power of “Blaze” lies in the vulnerable lead performance by Ben Dickey, and equally sweet portrayal of Sybil by Alia Shawkat.

As strange as this sounds, I think Dickey and Shawkat might consider marriage: what a wonderful couple they made on screen. Blaze says he loved Sybil more than “a Coney Island cheeseburger.” That’s a lot.

Blaze and Sybil were two imperfect souls, forgiving each other and expecting to stay together forever – until Blaze, once again, made forever go away.

Blaze was content to live on the edge, with little comfort and even less money. He and Sybil actually lived in treehouse, which became the title of Sybil’s later book: “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.”

A more recent country song by Lucinda Williams, “Drunken Angel,” remembers Blaze as the “derelict in duct tape shoes.” Describing the music of Blaze, a friend quipped, “not all of his songs are sad. Some are hopeless.”

Blaze wrote one song in giant letters on wallpaper: “Couldn’t find paper,” he said.

Except for his talent, Blaze might have been homeless. He had little drive, no desire for comforts and talked of a “vow of poverty.” But he could make a guitar cry, and his lyrics touched those drinkers sober enough to listen. So, club managers would hire Blaze, until he insulted their customers and got thrown out.

A warning: the Arkansas dialect and the sound system at the Myrna wash out some dialogue. It’s not an easy movie to follow as Foley mumbles and stumbles. And the scrambled time sequence doesn’t help, either. Hawke paints with some distinctly “artistic” strokes, including experiments in color. I wish Hawke had played it simpler, like Blaze’s life. Occam’s Razor: simpler is often truer.

The movie ends with his former wife visiting his grave: “You’ve made me a country western widow,” she says, placing flowers near his name. “When I wear a seat belt, it feels like your arms around me. Silly, I know.”

“Blaze” is a touching tribute to the country singer who is no longer the best singer we’ve never heard of. Now, he’s the best singer we’ve just barely heard of.

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