The Life of Blaze Foley Two Ways

‘Blaze’ and ‘Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah’ form a unique pairing of fiction and nonfiction portrayals of Austin’s forgotten sons.
By  · Published on August 16th, 2018

‘Blaze’ and ‘Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah’ form a unique pairing of fiction and nonfiction portrayals of Austin’s forgotten son.

This weekend, in select theaters scattered across Texas, audiences will be able to enjoy the story of one of Austin’s most unheralded singer-songwriters. Blaze, the latest from writer-director Ethan Hawke, captures the life of musician Blaze Foley (portrayed by Ben Dickey), who was known for playing local dive bars but who also wrote songs that influenced a generation of country stars.

What’s more, Blaze is the second film to try to understand its central figure. Back in 2011, the documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah paved the way for many of the stories that would follow. Those interested enough to watch both Blaze and Duct Tape Messiah will find a pair of films uniquely — and memorably — intertwined.

The common factor between both films is Duct Tape Messiah writer-director Kevin Triplett. As the story goes, Triplett was unfamiliar with Foley’s music when he first moved to Austin in 1995; it wasn’t until a member of Triplett’s family bombarded him with unusual anecdotes about the singer-songwriter that he began to envision a Blaze Foley documentary. “I was smart to realize that Blaze was so obscure that no one was fighting over the rights to his songs and therefore it would be easy to secure them for the film,” Triplett told website Tom Weber Films in 2011.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “I was not smart enough to realize that meant no one was aware of his music, that no one knew they wanted to watch a documentary about him.” Despite several setbacks and an agonizing 12-year production, the resulting documentary debuted at the 2011 Memphis International Film & Music Fest.

Years later, Triplett would again take part in a Blaze Foley film, this time as a producer on Hawke’s musical biopic. This film would draw heavily on “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” a 2008 memoir by Foley’s longtime girlfriend Sybil Rosen. While Rosen would later serve as Hawke’s co-writer on Blaze, the idea to commit stories about the singer to paper was inspired by a collection of recordings Triplett had sent Rosen during his work on Duct Tape Messiah.

“I was completely haunted,” Rosen told Shockya in 2018, “so I knew I had to retrace my steps, and revisit our time together, and our relationship. I had to understand what had happened to not only us but also him for the rest of his life.” Thus, BlazeDuct Tape Messiah, and “Living in the Woods in a Tree” all come from the same shared experiences of Rosen and others.

With Rosen serving as his co-writer and Triplett as his producer, Hawke’s film often feels like it is engaged in a dialogue with the original documentary. Granted, both films focus on decidedly different aspects of the man. Whereas Triplett captures Foley’s anger towards capitalism and the pride he took in being a musical outsider, Hawke chooses to frame his movie as a tragic love story between Foley and Rosen.

Both approaches seem rooted in reality. The common theme throughout the Duct Tape Messiah interviews is that Foley kept many parts of his life compartmentalized, with some friendships and accomplishments only becoming evident upon his death. If you want to present Foley as a down-on-his-luck misanthrope, there’s plenty of evidence to support you. If you want to present him as a big-hearted romantic, well, there’s plenty of evidence to support that, too.

These differences are fitting for a man who lived on through Austin’s own form of oral history. There’s an immediacy to the stories told in Duct Tape Messiah that reveals how important Foley was to many of his contemporaries; tears and laughter flow in equal amounts, and interviewees frequently contradict themselves in their own assertions of Foley’s career. There’s a chaotic nature to Triplett’s documentary that seems fitting with the man they are describing; it’s a chaotic nature that has (slightly) subsided in Hawke’s feature film.

Now we have something of a consensus on Foley’s legacy. We can find re-releases of his music, adaptations of his life, countless interviews and newspaper articles that tease out his impact before and after his death. Duct Tape Messiah is a film about remembering. Blaze, as the character himself suggests, is a film about a legend.

There is one thing both films can agree on: Foley was an incredibly talented musician. Triplett was able to collect many recordings of the singer from local bars and public-access television appearances; the interviews he performed with Foley’s friends and fellow musicians now form their own research archive at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. Watching grainy footage of Foley performing his songs in dive bars and half-broke television shows speaks to his tenacity as a performer, but hearing his music covered by an artist of Ben Dickey’s caliber shows the depth of his skill as a songwriter.

Each film finds beauty in Foley’s music, either in offering unheard performances by the man himself or showing his impact on a future generation of singer-songwriters. Given the fact that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cover of “If I Could Only Fly” helped cement his reputation as an unheralded performer, there’s an added bit of poignancy in seeing him receive his due via impeccable covers.

Those who want to learn more about Foley as a person and a musician would do well to watch both films — in any order you see fit — to try and obtain the full measure of the man. But with so many creative elements intertwined, and Foley’s own life slowly coming into focus in the past decade, there remains something beautiful about the interplay between Duct Tape Messiah and Blaze.

There may not be a lot of objective truth in either the documentary or the biopic, but both films find their own parts of the story to share with their audiences. It’s a testament to the complexity of Foley as a musician that two films still feel like one film too few.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)