SXSW 2018: ‘Blaze’ is a terrific portrait of the artist as a poetic screw-up

[cmg_anvato video=”4344207″ autoplay=”true”]

Let the word go forth from this time and place: Ethan Hawke, director of the excellent Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze,” is apparently extremely good at getting stunning performances out of non-actors.

Ben Dickey, a 40-year-old musician from Arkansas, already has been feted at Sundance for his performance as Foley in “Blaze,” but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it on the big screen. It’s a tour de force of oversized charm and verve, a living ballad of song-writer-as-ramblin’-man (and almost compulsive screw-up).

Gauzy without being cloyingly mythic, Hawke lets us know Foley’s tragic end right up front — he died in 1989 at the edge of 40, shot during an altercation over his friend’s disability check, a death that might have been too strange and pointless and heroic and sad to even make for a good song.

After we meet Foley, in full Duct Tape Messiah mode, screwing around the studio with friend and running buddy Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, equally excellent in a completely different tone than Dickey), we flash back over a decade (we think) and see Foley as a younger man doing construction work in a theater.

RELATED: Going out in the Blaze of glory at tribute concert

He meets Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, earthy and vibrant), a young aspiring actress in … Arkansas, we think. (It is Rosen’s memoir upon which the film is based.)

Soon they are inseparable and living in a treehouse/cabin thing in the Georgia woods (right?). He is working on songs and dispensing almost Zen koans about life and art, she is acting and keeping a sort of vague house — they are Southern, post-hippie bohos of the first rank. Dickey and Shawkat do a phenomenal job embodying a relationship that neither of them really ever got over, such was its perfection.

We flash forward and back over the years as Hawke loosely braids a few plot threads.  We see Townes and  Zee (Josh Hamilton) conducting a myth-building radio interview about Blaze. We see Foley as a near-constantly drunken troubadour, small band in tow, cutting a live album at the Austin Outhouse that he cannot help but interrupt by getting into a fight.

We see Blaze and Sybil meet her parents (it seems entirely possible Sybil is the first Jew Blaze ever encountered; during the hang with her folks, the only one he can think of is Zero Mostel). We see them head to Austin, then Chicago, wherein their relationship reaches a point of untenability. Then Blaze heads back to Austin (right?) and the legend builds.

We see the start of the fight where Blaze died. We see his pals try to convey his epic character to a barely interested radio host. We see record execs try to make Blaze a star. We see him die (but, cannily, not shot). We see him missed by those who loved him.

Again, Dickey is luminescent throughout. He is almost never not on-screen and it’s the sort of part that gives veteran actors the shakes. But Dickey gives Foley a bearish charm, self-medicated instability and a swaggering desperation.

If the film has one constant frustration, it is that, in the possible service of timelessness and tonal ramble, Hawke is really vague about when and where things take place. Unless you know Foley well — and most don’t — you have to head to Google to know that his career ran from at most, around 1977 to his death in 1989. A few dates popping up on the screen would not have lessened the mood, Ethan.

But then, this is not a soup-to-nuts biopic. It’s an ode to the artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies.  At one point, Foley tells his then-wife Sybil that he wants to be a legend rather than a star.  Bullseye.

Grade: B+

MORE SXSW: See all our coverage

SXSW: The gorgeous ‘Song to Song’ has little to do with music or Austin

http://players.brightcove.net/1418563061/S15Aq3t8_default/index.html?videoId=5355819236001

 

If beloved Austinite Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song,” which opened South by Southwest on Friday, is a meditation on the shallow, flash-over-substance, Los Angeles-ization of Austin, then it is a bullseye.

If it is a troll of contemporary Austin, if the idea is to mock a city overrun with poseurs-come-lately who dream of being artists without, you know, ever working at their craft, then “Song to Song” is one of the meanest movies ever lensed.

If it is a movie about gorgeous people wandering around hilariously empty Austin landscapes, photographed perfectly, touching each other, looking meaningfully at each other, then, sure.  And, hey: Nothing wrong with that.

And yet.

PHOTOS: “Song to Song” red carpet at SXSW

“Song to Song,” starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara, is, according to the blurb on the SXSW website, “a modern love story set against the Austin, Texas, music scene.”

This is essentially correct. “Song to Song” is a love story. It is in Austin, (though the city is never named). There are shots of bands playing and guitars being strummed. OK so far.

Here is the rest of the description: “two entangled couples — struggling songwriters Faye and BV, and music mogul Cook and the waitress whom he ensnares — chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal.”

This is where problems start.

It is a movie about the real world of popular music the way “Star Wars” is a samurai flick or a Western — a thematic and visual influence, perhaps, but that’s about it.

And it is a movie about Austin the way “Star Wars” is about Tunisia — it was shot there, but in terms of the flavor of the place, it might as well have been a matte painting.

Gosling is BV, one of these alleged songwriters. Songwriting is an activity we see him engage in, somewhat vaguely, once.

WHERE THE PARTY IS: Check out this interactive SXSW party guide

The rest of the time, we see him wander around town, wander around Fun Fun Fun, hang out backstage with the Chili Peppers, looking a lot more like an actor than a musician.

He becomes involved with Faye (Mara), who works on her music even less than BV.  Faye’s father has a strong Texas accent, implying that Mara is a native, which scans about as well as Audrey Hepburn playing a rodeo clown.

We see Faye playing guitar on stage at Fun Fun Fun, but we have no other context for what she does or whom she does it with — she, too, looks like an actor holding a guitar.

No wonder these two are struggling. They might as well be plumbers or lawyers or farmers for all of the songwriting they do.

Cook (Fassbender, who plays toxic masculinity better than anyone right now) is the sleazy record producer, which is definitely a type we have never seen before. He doesn’t ever seem to do any producing, outside of supervising (vaguely yelling at?) a string section in one scene and sort of admonishing BV in another. (There is no reason you, gentle reader, should remember “Laurel Canyon,” the 2002 bomb starring Frances McDormand as a record producer, but trust me, she was light-years more credible as someone who worked in pop music than Cook.)

Cook has a gorgeous house in Austin, one he says he’s lived in for “about two weeks,” which seems right on the money if, again, this is about terrible people who come to Austin seeking an authenticity they cannot name.

But Cook shouldn’t get too comfortable because he doesn’t really seem to know about the financial side of the music business either.

“I know you do the live music thing,” Cook says to BV, which is a series of words no record producer in history has ever actually said in that order to a songwriter/performer. “We should make a record together,” Cook says. “Don’t you want to make some money?”

Cook, I don’t know if you have been paying attention to the music business for the past 15 or so years, but making a record is an awfully hard way to make some money of late.

Anyway, Faye is sleeping with Cook, because of course she is. (This bit seems particularly disingenuous given the fiercely independent, OG punk rock icon Patti Smith’s lovely cameo.)

BV and Faye break up after BV finds out she has been sleeping with Cook. BV takes up with the older Amanda (Cate Blanchett). BV’s mother does not approve.

BV is also the sort who runs into an ex and asks, “What didn’t I know?” The ex responds, “How to feel.” I don’t know, lady; feeling seems to be the only thing these people do all day.

Cook, a flagrant womanizer, takes up with and marries Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a woman who says she has to waitress because she couldn’t find work as a teacher (!). In fact, another character in the film says she can’t find work as a teacher either — so she is a prostitute. There seems to be a bumper crop of teachers in Malick’s Austin.

Then again, given that every Austin location outside of the music festivals is so devoid of people that it looks like a neutron bomb hit it, maybe there aren’t enough children to sustain a mess of teachers. Our heroes spend most of the time wandering around a comically underpopulated Austin, voice-overs letting us know their thoughts, bits of dialogue advancing what little plot there is.

Standing on the balcony of (an otherwise completely empty) Mohawk, BV accuses Cook is stealing the copyrights to BV’s songs.  To which a viewer must ask, “What songs?” There is zero evidence on screen that these folks write anything, ever.

Indeed, it is to Malick’s credit that “Song to Song,” stunning-looking and meditative as it is, made me think about the very limitations of film as a medium. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” some wisenheimer once said, and I’ve always thought this was nonsense, not the least of which because I would love to see a dance about architecture.

But watching “Song to Song” made me wonder about Walter Pater’s maxim: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Which is to say all other art falls far, far behind; all other art is only ever playing catch-up to what makes music, music. So one wonders about the extent to which any medium can capture music’s power, its resonance, the obsessive centrality it can take in one’s life. No form seems up to it: Novels about music are mostly awful; we know TV struggles (witness “Vinyl” and even “Empire,” which once did a decent job but is more about crime than studio time).

No wonder music documentaries are so popular, are so their own category. At least in music docs, there is an acknowledgment that they will only get so far at capturing the real-life felt experience of the concert, the studio, the rehearsal room, the men and women at a piano or with guitars or a computer, trying the find the proverbial bottled-lightning. There’s none of that in “Song to Song.”

But if you love looking at Fassbender and Gosling, Mara and Portman, empty clubs and houses and the Long Center and slow-motion moshing without what anyone is moshing to, then go for it.

Just don’t expect music.

 

SXSW Film’s opener: Austin music scene movie starring Ryan Gosling

: (L to R) Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling in Terrence Malick's "Song to Song" (Van Redin / Broad Green Pictures)
From left, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling in Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song” (Van Redin / Broad Green Pictures)

Terrence Malick’s “Song To Song” will open the 2017 South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, it was announced today.

Malick partially filmed the drama in and around Austin over the course of a few years.

The movie is described as a “modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene” and stars Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman.

Mara, Gosling and Fassbender could be spotted at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2012.

Other movies and shows announced for SXSW Film include:

Spettacolo,” Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s lyrical portrait of a tiny hill town in Tuscany”; Signature Move” starring Fawzia Mirza, a coming-of-age Muslim melodrama from first-time filmmaker Jennifer Reeder; and “Residente,” Latin American director René Pérez Joglar’s chronicle of his global exploration of his genetic roots.

Also look for the world premiere of Neil Gaiman’s TV show “American Gods,” based on his massively successful novel of the same name.

Viacom NEXT’s “The Melody of Dust” is the first announced project in SXSW Film’s new VR/AR strand.

The almost-complete film festival lineup will be announced Jan. 31. Midnighter features and Short Films will be announced Feb. 7.

RELATED: Keep up with all the latest news in SXSW movies, music and more

The film festival lineup thus far:

american-gods-f70892
Ian McShane stars as Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle stars as Shadow Moon in the upcoming STARZ series “American Gods.” (Starz Entertainment)

“American Gods” (World premiere)

Director: David Slade; Screenwriters: Bryan Fuller, Michael Green

Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel, “American Gods” follows Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) in a magical world where a battle is brewing between the Old Gods and the New Gods.

The Melody of Dust” (World premiere)

Director: Viacom NEXT

A musical journey for the HTC Vive. Explore a mysterious world where every object contains a unique melody. Featuring original musical compositions by Hot Sugar, this experience brings you inside the tortured mind of a musician.

“Residente” (World premiere)

Director: René Pérez Joglar

After taking a DNA test, Latin America’s most decorated artist, Rene Perez (aka Residente), embarks on a global adventure to trace the footsteps of his ancestors and record his latest album.

Fawzia Mirza and Sari Sanchez in "Signature Move" (Chris Rejano)
Fawzia Mirza and Sari Sanchez in “Signature Move” (Chris Rejano)

“Signature Move” (World premiere)

Director: Jennifer Reeder; Screenwriters: Fawzia Mirza, Lisa Donato

A secret new romance with Alma forces Zaynab to confront her complicated relationship with her recently widowed mother. In this coming-of-age Muslim melodrama, Zaynab copes by taking up Lucha-style wrestling. Starring Fawzia Mirza, Shabana Azmi, Sari Sanchez, Audrey Francis, Charin Alvarez, Mark Hood, Molly Brennan

“Small Town Crime”  (World premiere)

Directors/Screenwriters: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms

Ex-cop, Mike Kendall, finds the body of a young woman and, in an act of self-redemption, becomes hellbent on finding the killer. While his uncouth, quirky detective style helps break the case, his dogged determination puts his family in danger. Starring John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins Jr.

“Song To Song” (World premiere)

Director: Terrence Malick

In this modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene, two entangled couples — struggling songwriters Faye and BV, and music mogul Cook and the waitress whom he ensnares — chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal. Starring Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman

“Spettacolo” (World premiere)

Directors: Jeff Malmberg, Chris Shellen; Screenwriter: Chris Shellen

For the past 50 years, the villagers of a tiny hill town in Tuscany have turned their lives into a play that the entire town writes and performs. “Spettacolo” is a portrait of this tradition through the eyes of the last man trying to keep it alive.