‘Blaze’ Gives a Late Musician the Audience He Never Got in Life

Blaze 2018 movie poster

There have been a number of music biopics in the last few years like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Love and Mercy” and “I Saw the Light.” Looking back, I wonder if my enjoyment, or lack of, was the result of how much knowledge I had of their main subjects: the rap group N.W.A., Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, and country singer Hank Williams. Typically, biopics focus on people we know of, and I went into them wondering if the filmmakers had anything new to say about these iconic figures. Biopics are, of course, “based on a true story,” so you can expect many liberties will be taken with the source material, so this just complicates things even more.

I bring this up because “Blaze” deals with a country singer and songwriter whom I am not familiar with, Blaze Foley. Many consider him a cult figure in the realm of country music, especially in Austin, Texas. What results here is an absorbing motion picture which delves into the life of a musician whose life, like many of his ilk, was cut short at far too young an age. Part of me wonders if my enjoyment of this movie would have been affected had I known more about Blaze Foley before I walked into the theater, but considering how much I liked it, I suppose the answer doesn’t matter much.

Based on the memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze” by Sybil Rosen, “Blaze” weaves together three different timelines which examines this musician in life and death. We see him develop a loving relationship with aspiring actress Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) to where she becomes his muse. Then we see him being discussed post-mortem by his close friends Zee (Josh Hamilton) and Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) on a radio show, and they reflect on his life with both respect and bafflement. And then there is the Blaze’s last night on earth which is presented in an unspectacular fashion, and we come to mourn a loss which was deeper than many realized at the time.

The narrative of “Blaze” shifts back and forth quite often, but I never lost track of where the story was going. This is saying a lot as the editing job on this movie could have rendered it into a complete mess, but it instead makes “Blaze” into an especially interesting motion picture as I was never sure which direction it would end up taking. Viewing a person’s life while they were alive and after they died proves to be endlessly fascinating here as we see all sides of the man in a way which feels both subjective and objective.

While watching “Blaze,” I kept thinking of “I Saw the Light” which focused on the life of Hank Williams. While it featured a stellar performance by Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, the movie was a narrative mess even though it was told in a linear fashion. There were moments where it took me some time to figure out what was happening as events jumped from one place to another with very little warning. “Blaze” could have been a similar mess, but Hawke never lets us lose sight of where things are going, and kept my attention throughout as I was intrigued to see where the movie would head next. I can’t say that for a lot of biopics these days.

When we first see Blaze Foley, he is a complete mess and screwing up a recording session to where a producer does little to hesitate in throwing him out of his studio. But then we rewind back to when he was an up and coming musician who showed the great love he had for music. Sybil asks him if he wants to be famous, but Blaze replies he how he instead wants to be a legend. As the movie goes on, we see him struggling with being a true musician and becoming a star in a way which he feels will dilute everything he does. When the movie started, I felt it would be like Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” which made Jim Morrison into the kind of musician you thought you would like to spend time with, but ended up wanting to avoid at all costs. Instead, the movie dares to look at Blaze’s life in a way which evokes both sympathy and pity.

In his unorthodox way of wooing Sybil, we see Blaze defying ordinary conventions in showing his love to another human being. As the movie goes on, we watch as he struggles with both his artistic ambitions and the fear he has of becoming a commodity which may make him a rich man, but will also rob him of any artistic integrity he ever hopes to have. Clearly this is a musician who wants to leave his mark on society, but like any stubborn artist, he wants to leave his mark on his own terms. The trouble is, does anyone get to leave their mark on this world on their own terms?

“Blaze” was co-written and directed by Ethan Hawke, an actor who has struggled with his place as a celebrity. We know him for acting in box office hits like “Dead Poets Society” and “Sinister,” but he is also well-known for delving into movies which defy mainstream convention like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy. I can see how the story of Blaze Foley appealed to him as Blaze is an artist who wants to be true to his art, but he is also subjected to the pressures of commercial success, or the potential for it, to such a degree that they fold under the pressure or have an overwhelming fear of being seen as a sellout. Hawke continues to walk the fine line between Hollywood and indie movies, and I believe it when he says how long it took for him to become comfortable with the fame he had achieved.

Hawke has directed a few movies previously such as “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” both of which had their share of flaws but showed him to be a filmmaker willing to take chances even if critics questioned his methods and material. With “Blaze,” he has given us a motion picture which feels assured in its vision, and it features some of the most ingenious editing I have seen in movie in some time.

Playing Blaze Foley is musician Ben Dickey, a man who has never acted before. But in a movie like this, the actors are meant to inhabit their characters more than play him, and Dickey ends up inhabiting Blaze in a way few others could. His life is similar to Blaze’s in a number of ways as he also has music running through his blood and has traveled throughout America playing songs filled with cinematic imagery which deal with life at its most hopeful and at its darkest.

As Blaze. Dickey gives the movie its heart and soul as we see him traveling through life wanting to be pure as an artist while dealing with a past and a heartache that will never let him be. He is matched perfectly with the fantastic Alia Shawkat as Blaze’s wife and muse, Sybil. I admired her work in a movie which came out earlier this year called “Duck Butter,” and she brings same emotionally raw power to the role of a person who lives to be another’s muse until it becomes too much to bear.

My only real complaint with “Blaze” is it never digs too deep into the singer’s life. We get only hints and implications of how troubled his childhood was, but no real specifics are given so we can only guess what led him to be such a tortured soul. We do get a nice cameo from Kris Kristofferson as Blaze’s father who is seen asking everyone for a cigarette, but it only tells us so much about their relationship. Perhaps Hawke felt it was better to imply certain things without spelling everything out to audience.

Hawke has had quite the year with this and “First Reformed,” and “Blaze” shows he has long since arrived at a place where he can do passion projects like this and Hollywood films to where he can transition from one to the other with relative ease. More importantly, he makes Blaze Foley into a complex human being who may have alienated many people close to him, but we never lose our empathy for the struggles he endures. I have seen many biopics which try to present a complex portrait and have failed to get below the surface, and it says a lot that Hawke doesn’t make the same mistake here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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I Saw The Light

I Saw the Light movie poster

Watching “I Saw the Light” reminded me of when I saw Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Both movies have a great cast, a lead actor who perfectly embodies an iconic singer, and scenes which vividly bring to life the classic songs of the artists. At the same time, both movies keep their main subjects, in this case country singer Hank Williams, at arm’s length to where we come out feeling like we never really got to know them. Considering the talent involved, this particular music biopic proves to be a major disappointment.

Writer and director Marc Abraham, whose previous film was “Flash of Genius,” eschews Hank’s childhood and goes straight to when he married Audrey Sheppard, a divorcee and single mother. They look like the perfect couple, and this is especially the case when you consider the palpable chemistry between stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. But like many biopics, we know everything is heading downhill for these two, and Hank’s life got cut short by alcoholism and a painful medical condition. He was only 29 years old when he died, but he looked much, much older.

The movie gets off to a wonderful start as we see Williams singing one of his most famous songs in a sequence which is beautifully lit by the brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti. We are instantly hooked as the country icon’s lyrics capture our attention right away, and it makes us look like we’re in for quite the biopic. Unfortunately, this proves to be its high point as nothing else ever measures up.

One of the big problems with “I Saw the Light” is it is so sloppily edited to where it’s hard to tell what part of Hank’s life we are looking at. It goes from one section of his life to another before we can ever fully digest what is going on. This makes the movie very confusing, and it keeps us from getting to know Hank and the other people in his life more intimately. I felt like I never really understood what fueled his music, and he became the kind of person who is not at all fun to hang out with.

Also, the movie feels undercooked to where Abraham has his cast of actors underplay every single scene they appear in. Nothing ever comes to life in the way it should, and everything in “I Saw the Light” eventually becomes an exercise in tedium. It’s bad enough we never get deeper into Hank’s psyche, but to see this story portrayed in such a passionless way makes this whole project come across as an unforgivably missed opportunity.

“I Saw the Light” does, however, have Hiddleston as Hank Williams, and his performance is in some respects amazing. We all know him for playing Loki in the “Thor” and “The Avengers” movies, and at first he seems like an odd choice to play the man who made “Lovesick Blues” such an unforgettable song. But he succeeds not only in mastering Hank’s accent, but in getting the audience to feel the songs as much as he does when he sings them. That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing here, and this makes his work here all the more admirable.

I was also impressed with Olsen’s performance as she makes Audrey perhaps the only human being who could possibly deal with Hank’s alcoholism and womanizing. Watching her here makes one realize what a powerful actress she can be, and she brings this movie to life in a way others are unable to.

As for the supporting characters, they are given short shrift and serve little purpose other than to further Hank and Audrey’s exploits. Cherry Jones, a tremendous actress, is wasted here as Hank’s mother Lillie as she has almost nothing to do other than sneer at any woman who grabs her son’s immediate affection. Bradley Whitford makes a bit of an impact as Fred Rose, the man who helped Hank rise to stardom, but Fred’s contributions to Hank’s career are made to feel smaller than they were. Maddie Hasson fares better as Billie Jean, the young woman who eventually becomes Hank’s second wife, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her here.

For what it’s worth, “I Saw the Light” did give me a good appreciation of Hank Williams’ songs. I have never been much of a country music fan, but the movie made me see why his music struck such a strong chord in so many people. Hank understood the pain of love in a way others didn’t want to experience firsthand, and it was not hard to connect with the feelings he so deeply expressed through music.

Still, the movie never digs deep enough into his life, and what results is a inescapably frustrating cinematic experience. This could have been one of the best biopics of recent years, but the filmmakers treat their main subject with kids’ gloves to where he feels like a complete stranger from start to finish. Coming out of “I Saw the Light,” I wanted to read more about Hank Williams on Wikipedia among other places on the internet as there’s got to be much more information on him there than what we got here.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* ½ out of * * * *

Tom Hiddleston Discusses ‘I Saw The Light’ and Singing Like Hank Williams

I Saw the Light movie poster

We all know him as the villainous Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but now British actor Tom Hiddleston takes on his most challenging role yet as iconic country singer Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.” Written and directed by Marc Abraham, the movie starts with Hank getting married to the lovely and business savvy Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), and it follows him from there as he works his way from singing on the radio to becoming a big time star at the Grand Ole Opry. The movie also shows the pain, challenges and addictions he suffered through which led to him creating some of the most memorable country music and his premature death at age 29.

In preparing to play Hank Williams, Hiddleston had to learn his songs and sing them himself. Working extensively with musical coach and veteran country singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell, Hiddleston immersed himself in Hank’s music and worked tirelessly to match his vocals to Hank’s as much as he could. There’s no doubt it was a difficult process for the actor, but watching him in “I Saw the Light” makes you see the tremendous effort he put into his performance.

I attended the movie’s press conference at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California where Hiddleston was joined by Abraham and Olsen. I was very interested in how Hiddleston managed to get past all the technical aspects of the singing to where he could put all the rehearsal behind him and just sing his heart out. Izumi Hasegawa, a reporter for What’s Up Hollywood and Hollywood News Wire asked him which of Hank’s songs was the hardest to sing, and this would later lead in to my question for him.

Tom Hiddleston: The most challenging song was probably “Lovesick Blues.” “Lovesick Blues” is, I think, of all the songs Hank sang, the hardest, and he probably sang that the most. It was a huge hit for him. He once went up on stage somewhere, it’s on an album called “The Lost Concerts,” and he’s about to introduce it. He says, “I’m going to play a little song for you. I sang this 13,000,001 and a half times and it’s earned us quite a few beans and biscuits.” It was obviously this real hit maker for him and he sang with such control and such authority that he must have done it in his sleep, and I had to accelerate that process because it’s a very technically difficult song. You are yodeling and you are jumping octaves, and so to be on pitch in every note of that song was really challenging. I had days where I felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall because Rodney Crowell and I would do take after take after take because if I was rhythmically precise the pitch was off, but if the pitch and the rhythm were right Rodney would say, “Well, you weren’t really feeling it. I kind of lost your sincerity, I lost the twinkle, so could you put that back?” And then I’d have the twinkle and I’d go off rhythm again. So yeah, that was probably the most challenging.

Ben Kenber: Clearly you did a lot of vocal work in preparing to sing like Hank Williams. When do you think you got to the point where you stopped worrying about the singing technicality and started to feel the songs instinctually?

TH: It goes back to what I was saying about “Lovesick Blues.” We had to pre-record certain tracks because of the way we were going to shoot them. If Marc was covering a concert performance, it meant he was going to be cutting from wide shots to close-ups to handheld which meant that we had to be very technically precise about the musical track and therefore couldn’t play it live in order for it to cut in. So we had to pre-record the tracks which I would then play and sing along to myself. They each had to have different atmosphere because some of them are radio station tracks, some of them are studio tracks, some of them are live concert performances, and there were some that came very quickly and very easily to me and some that didn’t. I had recorded “Why Don’t You Love Me” in about an hour. It took me about 10 days to record “Lovesick Blues” and I can’t explain why (laughs). Rodney and I used to say that it was like swimming through the ocean, and that I would have to swim for miles and miles through seaweed in order to get to clear water. And that’s how it felt vocally; there would be cracks and strains in my voice. Singing is a physical thing, and once your body and your resonance and your lungs are sufficiently warm, you can actually get to a place where it feels like you’re up at altitude where you are finally in control of the airplane if that makes sense. It’s a fascinating experience for me because I still believe singing is the most naked form of emotional expression. Actors can hide behind characters, writers can hide behind their writing, painters can hide behind paintings, but singers are purely open. The reason we revere the greatest singers is because we feel a raw power to the transmission of their emotions whether it’s Johnny Cash or Amy Winehouse or Nina Simone or Hank Williams or whoever it may be for you. That was challenging because even though there was a technical discipline to it in manipulating my baritone voice to sound like Hank’s tenor, there was still a commitment to emotional sincerity which was really new for me.

Following Hiddleston’s response, Abraham spoke up about what he specifically wanted for this movie.

Marc Abraham: I just want to add something to that because it was a big deal when we decided how we were going to do the music. From the very moment I wrote the script and decided to make the movie, I was intent that we would not have any lip-synching and that whoever played the part was going to have to sing it. I didn’t know they would be able to do it as well as Tom did. I was hoping that would happen, but what’s important to understand and that Tom understood and Elizabeth to some extent when she was even pretending to sing badly even though she gets mad at me for saying she can sing well (she can). Tom and I both knew from the very beginning that he would never sound exactly like Hank Williams. I know Hank Williams like my mother knows her kitchen. There are people who can imitate Hank Williams better than Tom Hiddleston can imitate Hank Williams because he is a natural baritone and Hank’s a tenor, and that’s just reality. What Tom was able to do was to create the feeling not just in his voice and replicate the sounds and the modulations and to get close enough for us, but to inhabit the character. So in the end it didn’t matter that he didn’t sound exactly like Hank Williams. What we wanted was for you to feel that he was Hank Williams, and that was magic. The magic was that he got so close to the music and put so much energy and time and devoted himself so deeply to becoming that character and bring his vocal representation that close, knowing from the very beginning he couldn’t be exactly like Hank. It’s not possible. That was what was really important, and that’s why we didn’t lip-synch it because then you are watching it and you may think you know what it sounds like, but in the end you feel it and you see that character at play and you see Hank singing “Your Cheating Heart” which is done live. That’s Hank Williams.

I want to thank Tom Hiddleston and Marc Abrahams for sharing their thoughts on the making of “I Saw the Light.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.