Ethan Hawke (who directed, co-wrote the screenplay and appears onscreen a handful of times) is clearly motivated by nothing but affection for Blaze Foley, a Texas-based singer-songwriter who died in 1989, and those around him.
Anyway, ol’ Townes — I feel entitled to call him that because I saw him play once at Folk City and own several of his albums on vinyl, though I’ve never been to Austin — is an important character in “Blaze.” Episodes from Foley’s life are framed by a radio interview in which Van Zandt and another pal reminisce about their departed buddy, and also (the chronology is a bit baroque) by a gig with Blaze that ol’ Townes never showed up for. Which may be for the best, since he, in the person of Charlie Sexton, just about steals the rest of the movie. Sexton, with hollow cheeks and graceful hands, is a sly jokester and a bewitching raconteur. He magnetizes attention, sometimes at the expense of Ben Dickey, who plays Foley as a sly, slow-moving bear of a man with a knack for fingerpicking and self-sabotage.
Townes Van Zandt in the 1980s would never have won a contest in sobriety or orderly living, but as long as Blaze Foley was around he wouldn’t have to worry about coming in last. As the movie depicts him, Blaze, a witty sentimentalist with a bottomless baritone, was an enthusiast when it came to love, liquor and weed. About fame he was more ambivalent, and part of the delicate drama of “Blaze” involves his attempt to make his mark in the music business without being ground up in the machinery of celebrity.
Another part — the charming, melancholy core of the film — examines his relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), an actress and theater artist. (Rosen’s memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree,” is the basis of “Blaze.” She collaborated with Hawke on the script and plays her own mother in the film.) For a time, they hole up in a rented shack out in the woods, spending their days and nights shivering, smoking, making love and being creative far from the pressures of the marketplace or the scrutiny of the public.
There is something exquisitely romantic in this idyll, a portrait of two artists working only for themselves and each other, and of course it doesn’t last. This is country music, which runs on heartbreak and bad decisions. And also, to an extent sometimes unappreciated by non-fans, on humor. There are a bunch of good songs in “Blaze” — the inevitable “Clay Pigeons” and plenty of less famous numbers — and maybe even more good jokes. You can’t always tell, during a jam session or a concert, if the banter is interrupting the music or vice versa. Shawkat (a producer of the film) is funny and sharp, channeling Sybil’s rebellion against being confined to the role of muse.
Actors who turn to directing often pay homage to filmmakers in whose movies they’ve appeared. Even if Richard Linklater didn’t appear in a few scenes (alongside Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn), “Blaze” might make you think of him. Like “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy, this one takes the time to listen to the odd, random, surprising and incoherent things people say. This is more than idle chatter. Listening to Sibyl practicing monologues, Townes telling shaggy-dog anecdotes or Blaze punning and pontificating is like watching prospectors panning gold. You see splinters and nuggets of art and you leave the theater feeling like you’ve struck it rich.
“Blaze,” with Ben Dickey, Charlie Sexton, Alia Shawkat, Kris Kristofferson, Ethan Hawke, Sybil Rosen. Directed by Hawke, from a screenplay by Hawke and Rosen, based on a memoir by Rosen. 127 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and drug use. Opens Sept. 28 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.