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Blaze Foley: Never a star, always a legend 

'Blaze' film makes a name for a Malvern songwriting legend — and now it's all different for Ben Dickey, the Little Rock musician who portrays him onscreen.

click to enlarge LOVE STORY: Little Rock's Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat star as Blaze Foley and Sybil Rosen, whose memoir "Living in the Woods in the Trees" inspired the film "Blaze." - IFC FILMS
  • IFC Films
  • LOVE STORY: Little Rock's Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat star as Blaze Foley and Sybil Rosen, whose memoir "Living in the Woods in the Trees" inspired the film "Blaze."

"Sometimes it feels normal. Sometimes it seems absolutely fucking bonkers."

That's Little Rock native Ben Dickey describing what it feels like to go from obscure indie musician to lauded indie actor.

And while his music remains respected in hip circles mostly centered around Little Rock and Philly, it's Dickey's unexpected recent turn as an actor that won a special jury award for achievement in acting from Sundance. Rolling Stone called it "astonishing." The Austin American-Statesman called it "a tour de force of oversized charm and verve." It's all for Dickey's work in "Blaze," a movie about Blaze Foley, the Malvern-born songwriter who made a name for himself in the Austin, Texas, music scene of the 1970s and 1980s — talked about for his drunken, duct-tape-wrapped behavior as much as for his stinging yet heartfelt songs. "Blaze" hits theaters in Arkansas Sept. 28 (Dickey will participate in post-screening Q&As at Riverdale 10 in Little Rock at 4:15 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28; 4:15 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29; and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30.).

Helming his fourth feature, director Ethan Hawke has said "Blaze" is not a Blaze Foley biopic in the way "Ray" is about Ray Charles, but in the way "Raging Bull" is about Jake LaMotta. That is, you don't need to know who LaMotta is to enjoy, or even understand, the movie. And that's a good thing for "Blaze" the film, because few know Blaze the songwriter, born Michael David Fuller in Malvern in 1949.


Speaking by phone from Caddo Parish, La. — at a friend's farm not far from the Arkansas line where he's lived with his girlfriend, Beth, since 2014 — Dickey tried to sort it all out: "I just keep counting my lucky damn stars."

Having friends helps. "Ethan Hawke is one of my good friends. We became friends about 15 years ago. His wife, Ryan, and my partner, Beth, are best friends and go way back," he said.

"We're both Southern people, we both love music, we both love food, we both love movies, so we became friends. Over the last eight or nine years, he's been sort of encouraging me to consider acting, or at least doing something with movies. I love storytelling, but I never had it in me — I never had a wild desire."

At Sundance in January, Hawke described the origins of "Blaze" simply: "I've been a big fan of [Dickey's] music for a long time, and believed in him, and I've also been a fan of Blaze Foley."

Dickey said he and Hawke went "pretty deep about 12 years ago over Blaze and Townes Van Zandt, that kind of music. We had an idea we would work on something, someday, that would cover those folks — Blaze Foley, Guy Clark, Townes [Van Zandt], the list goes on and on, you know." But Dickey had his own thoughts on casting at the time: "I just always said to [Hawke], 'It would be cool if you could play Townes.' " The speculation ended on New Year's Eve 2015. "I think he'd been marinating on it for a while, but it looked like it struck him like a lightning bolt on New Year's Eve — at 4 in the morning, [Hawke] got, like, possessed. He's like, 'I'm going to fucking make a Blaze Foley biopic and you're going to play Blaze.' And I was just kind of like, 'Ha ha, OK, dude.' "

But Hawke's fever dream persisted: "The next morning, he woke me up at 9. We went to bed at 4, and here he wants to go for a walk at 9. We're still drunk. So we went for a walk, and he pitched this idea. He was deadly serious about it, and very convincing about it. He was like, 'I saw it. I saw it all, I saw it all last night. I realized you'd be perfect.' He didn't know beyond Blaze, other than that he had died tragically, and that he was a great songwriter. That's how the idea was born."

That March, Louis Black, longtime editor of the Austin Chronicle alternative newsweekly, hipped them to Sybil Rosen's 2008 memoir about her life with Foley, "Living in the Woods in a Tree." "He put that book in Ethan's hands," Dickey said, "and that's when it went from, 'I want to do this two years down the line,' to 'I want to do this straightaway.' "

Another Hawke project where Dickey was set to play a minor role and contribute music had recently fallen through. "[Hawke] said, 'Listen, I can make this movie like, now, if you want to do it, like for real ... I have the money to do it. And that's when it became super crazy real."

click to enlarge ON SET: Dickey as Blaze (left) with director and friend Ethan Hawke. - IFC FILMS
  • IFC Films
  • ON SET: Dickey as Blaze (left) with director and friend Ethan Hawke.

Most of "Blaze" was filmed in Louisiana. And most of the music in "Blaze" was filmed live. Both Hawke and Dickey emphasize they respect their subject enough to strive to nail the details, especially the musical ones. And people have noticed. In addition to the acting accolades Dickey has received, Rolling Stone called the film "the best music biopic of the year." Variety called it "the ultimate hipster movie," explaining it was a compliment. At Rotten Tomatoes, it currently boasts a 100 percent "fresh" critics' rating.

Dickey is in nearly every scene in "Blaze," which runs more than two hours. And while Dickey had doubts about his skills onscreen, he said, "The way that I looked at it was, the one thing I know I can do is do justice to Blaze's music. I have no idea what I can do with the acting bit. But it's a pretty great opportunity."

It's true — but director Hawke brings more to "Blaze" than just star power and investors. While most may know Hawke as an actor from "The Purge," the "Before Sunrise" trilogy or his star-making turn in 1989's "Dead Poets' Society," the Tony and multiple Academy Award nominee has directed feature films, a documentary and off-Broadway plays, and is tuned in to music. His documentary directorial debut was 2014's "Seymour: A Introduction," based on classical composer Seymour Bernstein. Hawke, himself a native of Austin, Texas, took a convincingly tragic turn as trumpeter Chet Baker in 2015's "Born To Be Blue," was a guitarist in 1994's "Reality Bites," and played a rock musician in 2018's "Juliet, Naked."

"I trust Ethan, and I trust the production group that we were all working with," Dickey said. "But I didn't really know what I was in for until it started, and it was really wild."

***

The string of events that led to Dickey the musician getting into Blaze Foley's music is as circuitous as that which got Dickey the actor to playing Blaze Foley.

"I turned my father on to John Prine about 2002," he said, and chided his music-loving father for his lack of knowledge. "He couldn't believe he'd gone his whole life without knowing who John Prine was. This was right up his alley." Prine's subsequent album, 2005's Grammy-winning "Fair & Square," had a version of Foley's "Clay Pigeons" on it. "And my dad is like, dude, this song is incredible!" The younger Dickey, in turn, had barely heard of Blaze Foley at this point: "I heard of his name and that he'd died tragically." Dickey's dad, meanwhile, became a full-fledged Foley fan. The elder Dickey eventually sent Ben a wonderfully dad-like Blaze Foley care package: a burned CD, pages of related articles printed from an internet browser. It was right before Ben and his girlfriend went on a road trip to see the Hawkes in Nova Scotia, where Ethan owns an island: "We sort of became obsessed on that trip. I went down the rabbit hole pretty deep 10 years before we started working on this movie."

But most in Arkansas have known Ben Dickey from a completely different rabbit hole — his own music. His band, Shake Ray Turbine, was a big part of Little Rock's glorious punkish DIY scene of the mid-to-late 1990s. At the turn of the century, the band relocated to Philadelphia and changed its name to the Unfixers. After a stint in Philly's Blood Feathers, he released a single on Little Rock's Max Recordings as Amen Booze Rooster. Dickey then released his solo debut, "Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics," on Little Rock's Max Recordings label in 2016.

"I grew up in Little Rock, moved to Philadelphia when I was 20, I lived in Philadelphia the better part of 17 years, for a year and a half in Arizona, and a year in New York," he said. "But I've always been an Arkansan. You can't get it out of you."

***

"Blaze" "is a huge love letter to Austin; it's a huge love letter to songwriters; and [to] people falling in love — that's what it is," Dickey said.

Indeed, the film poster depicts Foley cradling the loves of his life — an acoustic guitar and a can of Pearl Beer in one arm, his partner Sybil in the other. "Based on a true Texas love story," it reads.

Alia Shawkat (Maeby Funke from TV's "Arrested Development") plays Sybil Rosen. Rosen was Foley's partner and soulmate; her memoir provided the basis for "Blaze." Rosen co-wrote the script with Hawke, and she portrays her own mother in "Blaze." Dickey now says Rosen is "one of my best friends. It's funny — all the people I've met through the project, I've really bonded with."

click to enlarge IFC FILMS
  • IFC Films

(Rosen participated in a Little Rock screening of the documentary "Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah" in November 2011. Foley compatriot Gurf Morlix performed afterward. To add another Arkansas connection onto the "Blaze" fire, the screening was sponsored by Little Rock lawyer Brad Hendricks, who once was roommates with Blaze Foley. This Foley guy got around.)

And while "Blaze" is a love letter to many different camps, to tell the story of Blaze Foley is also to tell a story of self-destruction and addiction. "I say it all the time — Blaze torpedoed his own fleet. He was his own biggest enemy," Dickey said. "Blaze was probably bipolar. He was probably ... a number of things, but certainly an addict."

In the film, as in life, Dickey said his character dealt with his mental issues "by drinking, by doing drugs and running. And that was the name of the game for Blaze." Self-medication for mental issues causing a dual downward spiral is well-known in behavioral health. "I never met anyone who knew him in life who said, 'He was always nice to me!' " Dickey said. "It's always 'He was my best, closest friend — and then, he was a total horror.' "

Dickey's performance, though lauded by critics, took him to a dark place, he said. "I've never done it before, but the only way it made sense to do it was to immerse myself. The excitement of being up at 4 in the morning, and in makeup, and on the set, and in trying to be in this world is really cool. Even if the scenes are dark, the mission is clear. ... But when it's over, it's like, the super crazy fun musical summer camp is over, and your friends are all gone. It took me months to stop sitting in a cold, sorry pool of where I had been to get me close to that place," he said.

"I love Blaze. And I love his songs," Dickey said. "And there are many people in my life who live like Blaze, and write beautiful songs like that."

***

Dickey may have been apprehensive about his acting but had full confidence in his playing. "The one thing I knew I could do was — I'm in a really unique position to — do his music right," Dickey said. The "Blaze" soundtrack, which also features an original composition of Dickey's, was released Sept. 21.

Austin, Texas, native Charlie Sexton plays Townes Van Zandt in "Blaze." In the mid-1980s, Sexton rose to Top 20 fame as a guitar-slinging teenager with the twin punch of MTV and his chiseled cheekbones. Thirty years later, Sexton is a perfect Hollywood-handsome version of long and lean Townes Van Zandt, who was both mentor and peer to Foley.

Like Dickey, Sexton is another musician turned newbie actor — and, like Foley, Sexton is earning raves for "Blaze." (Sexton's previous credit was in Richard Linklater's acclaimed "Boyhood" in 2014. Linklater cameos as a sleazy record exec in "Blaze.") And the association with Sexton turned into yet another great

opportunity for Dickey, this time musical.

"Ethan met Charlie when they made that movie 'Boyhood.' They played roommates, so they got to be pretty close," Dickey said. "I told [Sexton] I was going to try and make a record, and he said, 'I'd love to produce it if you're into it.' " Producing wasn't some lark for Sexton, who's produced albums for the likes of Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Vaughan and Edie Brickell in addition to his time playing in the supergroup Arc Angels and being Bob Dylan's off and on touring guitarist.

click to enlarge RETT PEEK
  • Rett Peek

A soft release was given to a Dickey EP this summer so as not to detract from publicity for the movie. Tellingly titled "It's All Different," the EP was culled from the Sexton sessions. "I'm trying to get a band together," Dickey said, for a tour supporting the release of a full album in January. Called "A Glimmer On the Outskirts," it will be released on his new label, Dual Tone. Like so many things in Dickey's life, it's been put on hold for the movie. "It's a whole new world to me," Dickey said. "I have a management team now, and IFC is putting out our movie, so I have to coordinate all this stuff with them — it's really odd; it goes against my better instincts, really."

And although Little Rock missed out on the fanfare, the press and festival tour for "Blaze" has been extensive. From Kathie Lee and Hoda to NPR, Dickey said he's participated in around 50 radio and TV segments on the film, and "77 Q&As" to date. But who's counting? He's also had to turn down "some interesting things" to focus on promotion of "Blaze" as it caught fire. The work has paid off. Dickey cites the "more palpable" feeling that "Blaze" was connecting with audiences following an "overwhelming" film festival in Switzerland: "There were 8,000 people at this outdoor screening, under a lightning storm. Everyone was moved. It's very different, going from a screening with 200 people to 8,000." A subsequent tour of Texas with the film, where audience members actually knew or were related to the onscreen characters at every date, was equally powerful, Dickey said. "I'm working off of the vision of other people right now." Coming from the background of an indie musician, Dickey agrees, "that's weird. But they're all good people, so we'll see what happens." Chances are, yep, we will see what happens.

Dickey has another movie already in the can — a Western by Vincent D'Onofrio about Billy the Kid called "The Kid." Dickey notes the character he plays, Jim East, was "a real dude — Pat Garrett's deputy; Ethan plays Pat Garrett. Chris Pratt plays a villain for the first time."

And he has a couple of other movie projects in the works through Hawke's production company. Dickey said D'Onofrio "really helped me see the landscape in a really different way [regarding acting]. It simplified everything, and made me feel like I have these tools for preparation, and tools for executing, and tools for not overthinking or anything like that. He gave me some principles to work with."

And Dickey is reading more scripts and doing online auditions from Caddo Parish, because of course he is. "Again, sometimes, I go 'This makes sense;' and then sometimes I think, 'What in the world ...?' "

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