Unless you spent 2004 under a rock somewhere, you know that former "In Living Color" and Breakin' All The Rules star Jamie Foxx had a helluva year – starring in not one, but two breakout roles – that of Max, the resourceful, put-upon cabbie in Michael Mann's Collateral and the title role in Ray, director Taylor Hackford's well-intentioned biopic about the musical icon, Ray Charles.
An ambitious but flawed attempt at synthesizing roughly forty years in Charles's life, Ray is aided immeasurably by Foxx's amazing (and Oscar-nominated) portrayal of the singer. You simply believe that Charles is onscreen (save for one truly jarring sequence near the film's conclusion) throughout the film and the effect is chilling but nonetheless totally amazing. Of the two roles that garnered Foxx attention, this, of course, is the flashier one – but don't let it deter you from also seeking out his fine work in Collateral.
Hackford, working from a screenplay by James L. White, hits all the standard biopic buttons, but thanks to some truly dazzling musical set pieces, Ray manages to briefly avoid what is otherwise a fairly by-the-numbers affair. Tracing Charles's childhood up through the late Seventies, the audience is given some dramatic insight into a man who was a notorious perfectionist as well as occasionally stand-offish, but never anything less than mightily determined to realize his goals.
From his love life and children to his occasional record company struggles, Ray attempts to present itself as an "unvarnished" look at the musician's life but often pulls its punches, thanks to the PG-13 rating. I was truly surprised to learn in Hackford's breakneck commentary track that the rating was imposed by one of the film's financial backers and not by the filmmaker or the studio; one of the stipulations for receiving the money to make the film (a lengthy journey, to be sure) was that the film couldn't graphically portray some of the more unsavory events in Charles's life (i.e. drug abuse, womanizing). Despite this stumbling block, Ray (particularly in its slightly longer cut) is a mostly unflinching dissection of one of the 20th century's greatest musical minds.
Alternating between deeply saturated flashbacks and more normally tinted footage, the theatrical cut of Ray looks solid throughout in the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered here. No edge enhancement and no softness make this easy on the eyes. The "extended" cut of Ray is marred by the non-anamorphic, grainy inserted footage.
Songs like "Hit The Road, Jack" and "Mess Around" really pop in Dolby Digital 5.1. The aural portion of the film is arguably reason enough to pick this movie up; Charles's work sounds fantastic and dialogue is intelligible throughout, thanks to the clear, crisp soundtrack provided, which (one more time) more than does the music justice.
Available on the theatrical cut is an insanely talkative commentary from director Taylor Hackford – he literally starts talking over the production company credits and doesn't stop until he hits the copyrights at the end. His passion and dedication for the multi-year project is evident in how he addresses everything from casting to securing financing to rewriting to the nuts and bolts of filming. A great, informative track.
For those who don't want to sit through the awkwardly assembled "extended" cut (apparently, the concept of seamless branching is foreign to the fine folks at Universal), on the flipside of the disc, the 15 deleted scenes totaling an additional 28 minutes are available separately or under a "play all" option with optional commentary from Hackford. Also, two extended musical scenes – "What Kind of Man Are You" and "Hit The Road, Jack" – total four and a half minutes. The 10-minute "Stepping Into the Part" has priceless footage of Foxx and Charles jamming in the studio.
In addition, the four-minute tribute featurette "Ray Remembered" is on board, as is the three-minute "A Look Inside Ray," the three-minute theatrical trailer as well as trailers for Cinderella Man, Friday Night Lights, The Motorcycle Diaries and Vanity Fair.
An entertaining look at a complicated, brilliant man, Ray will forever be Jamie Foxx's calling card as well as the dream project that finally realized by Taylor Hackford. The energy and passion these two invest in what would've otherwise been a rote biopic make this a film worth seeing, if only to marvel at Foxx's mimicry and revel in the genius of Ray Charles's music. It's a shame that Universal couldn't better integrate the deleted scenes into the "extended" cut; the disruptive transitions are enough to make sitting through the deleted scenes on side two much more appealing. Recommended.