‘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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Exclusive Interview with Leslie Zemeckis about ‘Bound by Flesh’

Leslie Zemeckis headshot

With her documentary “Bound by Flesh,” Leslie Zemeckis has reopened a part of history many have either forgotten about or never knew about. It focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became stars in sideshows and were generally viewed as freaks of nature. Throughout their lives they were subjected to abuse by their handlers and kept out of public view in fear of losing their monetary value. But when they finally got their freedom, life became even worse for them as they didn’t know how to deal with the ways of show business, and they eventually lost everything and entered a life of poverty.

What’s great about Zemeckis’ documentary is how it forces you to look at the Hilton sisters as human beings as opposed to oddities to be gawked at. I got to talk with Zemeckis over the phone about “Bound by Flesh,” how she first became aware of Daisy and Violet, and of the research she did.

Bound By Flesh documentary poster

Ben Kenber: This is a fascinating documentary. I didn’t know about the Hilton sisters at all, and they suffered through quite a miserable existence. “Bound by Flesh” deals with them as “freaks,” but it also deals with them as human beings which I really liked. What they go through is not unusual for people who don’t know the ways of show business.

Leslie Zemeckis: Good, I like that.

BK: How did you first find out about the Hilton sisters?

LZ: When I was doing my first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q” about burlesque I had read someplace that they were in burlesque briefly, so that kind of intrigued me and I put a little bit about them in the first film. Then I read Dean Jensen’s biography about them (“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”), and just over time, while I was editing my other film, I kind of became obsessed by their story. But also taking into context of the time they lived and what the carnival was and what circus life and sideshows were, we don’t have that today. There’s really almost no animals even left in the circus, so we’re kind of bringing to light and exploring what that world was that they lived in.

BK: In regards to the historical footage that you were able to include in this documentary, how did you go about researching this subject?

LZ: Every which way I could. I did the research myself so that I’m familiar with the names and dates, and I knew that they were, in their day, photographed a lot. They were interviewed and they had done a lot of newsreels, so I actually went to a news real company in New York and I sorted through their files, and because I knew the names that they were involved with, I found some footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. It probably never would’ve (been discovered) because it doesn’t have their names on that little 3 x 5 index card. I found that within 10 minutes of searching.

BK: On the surface and outside the fact that they were conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet really looked like normal people and very innocent in a sense.

LZ: Well they were. It was a double-edged sword by them being so protected and kept away from other people that they were innocent. But then when they were out on their own they didn’t have the skills to deal with people or their career or money really, and that’s why they were taken so badly advantage of.

BK: You find yourself rooting for the twins to get freedom from their handlers, but once they do get their freedom they are thrust into a world they don’t have any control over. They are not prepared for it at all.

LZ: Yeah, it was a little bit of a curse maybe to get their freedom.

BK: I got a big kick out of the logos because they look like they came out of a schlocky B-movie from the 50’s. Who designed the logos?

LZ: Well it was my idea because they were in B-movies like “Chained for Life” and their story, when you talk about it, is so headline; kept in chains and held captive and all that. So I wanted to add an element of that for fun, but there really is a deep story behind it and my editor Evan Finn designed all that because he’s brilliant.

BK: Regarding the sound clips, were they created for this documentary or was it a combination of archival footage and actors redoing them?

LZ: It was actors redoing them, but that was their (the twins’) words. In both “Behind the Burly Q” and then this, I wanted the sisters to tell the story. I want people to tell their story instead of me imposing on it for the audience, so I used their words. I didn’t write those words. Those were what the sisters said.

BK: It definitely felt like their words. Who were the most fun or most informative to talk to when it comes to your interview subjects?

LZ: Well I just thought it was a little amusing that I had James Taylor and Phillip Morris (laughs). We would just laugh about it. I mean where else are you going to find “characters” like this? But they were all very charismatic, knew their history and I loved and loved talking to them and they loved it too. They loved that era, they loved the sideshow and they love the circus.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to for one reason or another?

LZ: No. I would’ve liked to of had more footage of them, but I am super happy with what I found. I wanted people to see their movement. I don’t believe there’s any footage of them performing live in vaudeville, but I was really pleased with what I did find.

BK: The Hilton sisters did appear in “Freaks” which is now considered a classic, but when it first came out it was treated as very controversial and off-putting. It’s interesting to see how people initially reacted to the movie when it was first released.

LZ: It’s a disturbing movie, but what’s funny is that the twins actually aren’t in it as much as you would think. But the film has value; it’s in the National Archives. It’s just a world that is no longer.

BK: Are there still any sideshows still performing today?

LZ: Not really. There’s so little “born freaks,” but to me I equate it, and it’s not PC of course to go stare at people, with watching reality TV. Everybody sits in their home and it’s okay to watch the Kardashians comment on their physicality, and I think we still have a form of the sideshow. It’s just changed to reality TV. All forms of entertainment just change. They stay but they change. We just now do it from our home.

BK: There’s something to be said for the twins living as long as they did because the lifespan of conjoined twins is not good.

LZ: Right and they were generally very healthy throughout their lives.

BK: The choice of music was interesting because some of it goes outside of the times the Hilton sisters went through. How did you go about choosing the music, or did you just leave that to your composer (Oliver Schnee)?

LZ: No, I don’t leave anything to anybody (laughs). It’s too much of my baby. I certainly didn’t compose it. He (Oliver Schnee) was brilliant, but I didn’t want it to feel like you’re just watching this period piece that has nothing to do with today. It’s still hip, they were hip, and I wanted the music to reflect that.

BK: Going back to the voice cues, those were done by Lea Thompson and Nancy Allen. How did you manage to get them involved in this documentary?

LZ: Well I knew them so I was familiar with their voices, and they both have a similar quality with each other which I felt would work with the sisters. They also have a very light, optimistic voice. I was so lucky to get them. They were similar enough that I thought they sounded like sisters.

 

A big thank you to Leslie for taking the time to talk with me about “Bound by Flesh” which opens us up to a part of history that has been forgotten for far too long. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Jonas Carpignano about ‘A Ciambra’

A Ciambra” was Italy’s official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for the 90th Academy Awards, and it was made in the heart of the country’s Romani community. A gritty coming of age story, it follows Pio Amato, a 14-year-old boy who is eager to grow up real fast. Pio spends his days smoking and drinking as well as following his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) around town while learning the skills needed for survival in their hometown. While tensions between the different factions, the Italians, the African immigrants and his fellow Romani, remain high, Pio is able to slide through each in a way few others can. When Cosimo is arrested one night, Pio is quick to convince everyone he is more than ready to fill his older brother’s shoes and take care of things. But as the movie goes on, he wonders if he is truly ready to become a man.

“A Ciambra” was written and directed by Jonas Carpignano whose previous film, “Mediterranea” won various awards including Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review and the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Directing. What he has succeeded in doing here is giving us a motion picture which makes you feel like you are hanging out with these characters instead of just watching them from a distance. Carpignano combines biographical elements with documentary style filmmaking to give us something we experience more than anything else. There are not many movies like this one these days, and I will take them wherever I can get them.

Carpignano spent his childhood between Rome and New York City, and he currently lives in Italy where he continues his filmmaking endeavors. He was in Los Angeles to talk about “A Ciambra,” and it was a pleasure taking with him about how he went about making the film with non-professional actors. In addition, he spoke of what it was like to work alongside Martin Scorsese who is the film’s executive producer and of the most valuable piece of advice the “Goodfellas” director gave him.

“A Ciambra” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater on February 2, 2018. Be sure to check out the interview above as well as the movie’s trailer below.

A Ciambra poster

Forget ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and Check Out ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

the-duke-of-burgundy-movie-poster

Looking at the trailer for “The Duke of Burgundy,” I couldn’t help but expect a sexploitation flick with lots of nudity and dozens of butterflies. But while the movie does deal with a sadomasochistic relationship between two women, it actually turns out to be a domestic drama about two people who love one another deeply. When the movie starts, however, it looks like this relationship is reaching its breaking point.

“The Duke of Burgundy” starts off with an innocent looking woman named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) cycling over to a grand mansion where she is greeted coldly by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who bluntly informs her she is late for work. From there it looks like Evelyn works as Cynthia’s maid and is rudely ordered around and made to do chores, each of which are increasingly demeaning. It’s a daily routine for these two, and the day ends with Cynthia punishing Evelyn behind a closed bathroom door. We have a good idea of what Cynthia’s doing to her, but director Peter Strickland is more content to let us visualize what’s happening instead of showing us everything.

At this point, I became very eager for Evelyn to smack Cynthia in the face, but as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. What’s actually happening is that these two are in a relationship where Evelyn is the submissive one and Cynthia is the dominant one. They are deep into role playing and enjoy each other’s company more than we could have realized. But as “The Duke of Burgundy” continues on, it becomes apparent that a compromise in this relationship is desperately needed. We see in Cynthia’s eyes a longing for a more normal relationship, but Evelyn has become hopelessly addicted to the submissive role she plays and wants her lover to punish her more aggressively than ever before. With any addiction, you eventually come to find too much is not enough.

This movie surprised me throughout as it plays around with what you think you know about sadomasochism to where you’d expect Cynthia to come out dressed as a dominatrix and carrying a big whip. But if you strip away the strange and painful things they do to one another, you see their relationship is no different from any other, and like any relationship, there needs to be some compromise. The question is, who’s willing to compromise more?

Both D’Anna and Knudsen are perfectly cast, and they nail each of their characters’ complexities with a lot of depth. It’s fascinating to watch their relationship evolve to where the most dominant one is actually Evelyn as she continually begs Cynthia to feed her dark desires. Knudsen, in particular, has a great moment where she’s getting intimate with D’Anna, and you see this wounded look in her eyes which says without words how this relationship is becoming a lot less comfortable for her.

“The Duke of Burgundy” is also one of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen in a while as it looks like it was shot on 16mm film to where you think you’re watching something from the 70’s. To my astonishment, I discovered it was shot digitally which completely blew my mind. Many congratulations go to cinematographer Nic Knowland who has been working in movies since the 60’s. The lush and hazy look he gives this movie feels magical and makes you realize what amazing things can be captured with digital cameras. It was also fascinating to learn many of the images were created in the camera and not in post-production.

The movie also features a very unique and original score by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo made up of two musicians from entirely different disciplines. Their music adds immeasurably to the story which reaches a fever pitch towards the end when this relationship looks to be doomed. Like Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin,” I have a hard time comparing Cat’s Eyes score to others out there. Here’s hoping they compose more film scores in the future.

Strickland previously directed “Berberian Sound Studio” which brought him to the attention of many film critics who became immediately enthralled with his work. I regret to say I haven’t seen that movie yet, but watching “The Duke of Burgundy” does make me want to check it out sooner than later. Strickland shows a strong mastery of the filmmaking process, and he ends up taking us on a journey unlike few other have recently. He also tricks us into thinking we are watching one type of movie, and he ends up giving us something which is not only different but far deeper and more mesmerizing than we ever could have expected.

I also want to point out that there’s not a single male character to be found in this movie. That’s actually pretty amazing considering how hard it is to think of an American movie where this is the case. I’m sure there’s one like this one out there, but nothing comes to mind right away.

What bums me out is audiences will not be quick to come out in droves to see a movie like “The Duke of Burgundy.” Small and original movies like these tend to get swept under the rug far too quickly in this day and age of superhero franchises, and I hope those with a taste for challenging and unusual material will give it a shot. What Strickland has given us is an edgy fairy tale which could take place in any time period, and he sucks us into a story you cannot help but be enthralled by. With any luck, we’ll get more challenging movies like this one in the future. At the very least, it’s infinitely better than the awful monstrosity which is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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