"You give your hand to me
And then you say, 'Hello'.
And I can hardly speak,
My heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well.
Well, you don't know me."
- Ray Charles, "You Don't Know Me"
Everything you've heard about Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray is true. The actor fully transforms into Ray Charles, both physically and emotionally. It's a remarkable achievement, worthy of all the awards acclaim it received. Attempting to embody an iconic figure is a daunting feat, especially one with such a specific and unique personality. A lazy actor might rely on superficial impersonation, focusing on the physical characteristics and mannerisms but losing the soul of the man. Though you might not think the star of Booty Call capable of it, Foxx nails the role, allowing Ray Charles to live on screen as a complex, three-dimensional human being, as well as a genius and legend. That's an incredibly delicate balance, and he really pulls it off.
Taylor Hackford's musical biography of Charles follows a familiar bio-pic formula. We trace the course of the singer's life from his early childhood, traumatized by the death of his brother, to his total loss of vision soon afterward. Determined not to be handicapped by his blindness, Charles starts his musical career on the infamous "Chitlin' Circuit" through the American South, making a reliable income mimicking popular singers of the time like Nat King Cole. He eventually finds his own unique voice in the mixture of Gospel music with Rhythm & Blues, a controversial combination that saw him condemned by many as a blasphemer. Sacrilegious it may have seemed to some, but to the rest of the world it was joyous and infectious, and propelled him to superstardom. Later experiments with Country music also seemed doomed to failure, but the man's talent always won out, despite his troubles with womanizing and heroin addiction.
Hackford has an obvious passion for the material and treats the project as a labor of love, not just a hired-hand directing assignment, as his last few movies sure felt. He takes great pains getting all the details right, from Foxx's performance to the period settings and musical history. Original Ray Charles recordings are seamlessly integrated into the picture, making it very difficult to tell when Foxx is doing his own singing (which he does on a few songs) and when he's lip-synching to the real thing. Lending able support to the star are Terence Howard, Regina King, Kerry Washington, Richard Schiff, and Curtis Armstrong (the '80s geek icon barely recognizable here), among others. Perhaps even more of a revelation than Foxx is Sharon Warren, a previously unknown actress (she'd only recently joined a community theater group before auditioning for the movie!), who delivers a searing performance as Charles' mother in the flashback sequences.
All of these strong elements, not to mention a steady stream of that fantastic Ray Charles music, make for an entertaining movie, but unfortunately there's just something rote about the bio-pic genre that Hackford can't quite overcome. The film feels like it's just skimming through Charles' life without hitting on any one particular topic in great depth. The groundbreaking stand against segregation in the performing arts that saw him banned from the state of Georgia is briefly covered near the end, but we never feel the impact of its consequences on his career; a whole movie on that subject alone could have been fascinating. And while the infidelities and drug addiction may be absolutely true to the man's real life, why can't I help feeling that I've heard that exact same story about countless other famous musicians on VH-1 Behind the Music? I think the percentage of musical superstars who aren't womanizers and drug addicts is probably a lot smaller than those who are.
Where Ray works as a movie is its focus on Ray Charles as a man, not just an icon. We see the fierce determination instilled by his mother, his unexpectedly savvy business sense, and his amazing talent for improvisation in music and in all aspects of life. We also see the charm and charisma that made everyone who knew him, or even just knew of him, love him so, in spite of his flaws. It may not escape the clutches of bio-pic formula, but at its best Ray shines, and is better than average for its genre.
The HD DVD:
Ray debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Ray HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 with tiny letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
For the first half hour or so of the movie I found myself pausing it repeatedly to check my calibration settings, because it looked like something was badly out of whack. The transfer's brightness has been boosted, leading to milky blacks and faded colors (except during the flashback sequences, where they're wildly oversaturated). As the movie wears on, it becomes clear that this is a stylistic effect, though to what end I'm still not entirely certain. At times it seems to be done to blend in with period stock footage, or at other times to represent Ray losing his vision as a child, but in either case the effect isn't consistently applied. For a while it looks like the oversaturated colors are just a flashback device, but later they creep into the main narrative timeframe without explanation. These artistic experiments settle down in the last half of the movie, where we start to get some better black levels and more natural colors. I find it difficult to fault the disc for being faithful to the director's intended stylings, but if you aren't familiar with the movie it's a bit of a surprise.
The image also has a general flatness and lack of depth. Close-up shots have great detail, revealing every pock mark on Jamie Foxx's face, but medium and wide shots are less impressive. This could very well also be related to the photography's use of filters and digital manipulation. The picture is reasonably sharp overall, without any edge enhancement artifacts. Film grain is present in some scenes, usually well compressed, though it does look a little noisy here and there.
The Ray HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. The volume is set low by default and benefits from amplification above normal levels.
I hold musicals to a very high audio standard, more so than regular movie soundtracks. Perhaps that's not entirely fair, but in a picture like this you want to be able to hear every single note and each individual instrument clearly and distinctly. Unfortunately, I didn't always get that effect here. That left me disappointed, but digging into the disc's supplements I found out that most of the songs were taken directly from Ray Charles' original master recordings. They're seamlessly blended into the movie and I wouldn't have guessed that otherwise. The songs don't exactly sound dated (there's no analog hiss, for example), but especially in the early scenes fidelity is not as clear as a modern recording would allow. You can actually hear them improve as the film moves into the later years of Charles' life, when he worked in better studios with more sophisticated recording and mixing equipment.
In other respects, the soundtrack is fairly good if not exceptional. The mix is extremely front heavy, with minimal surround envelopment, which is mostly reserved for the concert scenes. Directional effects to the rear speakers are quite rare. We get some high highs, but the low end never digs particularly deep. Dialogue also seems a little veiled in many scenes.
I fear that I'm making it sound worse than it is. If you turn it up nice and loud, this is a very enjoyable movie soundtrack that will probably satisfy all but the nit-picky audiophiles.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1, or an English DVS Descriptive Video Service track for blind viewers. The DVS track is exclusive to the HD DVD edition.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
Most of the supplements from the 2-disc Limited Edition DVD have carried over:
Missing from the DVD are the branching option to view the deleted scenes while watching the movie (via a pop-up icon), some cast & crew text bios, and the photo booklet. Given that we do still get all of the deleted scenes in the supplement section, the branching option isn't a huge loss. The text bios are hardly missed at all, but the photo booklet would have been nice. No interactive features have been included.
- Audio Commentary - Director Taylor Hackford delivers one of the best commentaries I've heard in years. Filled with unbridled passion for the project, the director discusses his technique and stylistic choices, as well as the artistic license he had to take in certain sections of Ray Charles' life. He's so enthusiastic that he talks from the first frame through almost all of the end credits and never wastes a second of it with filler. This is a terrific commentary, one of the few I've been happy to listen to from beginning to end.
- Deleted Scenes (27 min.) – 14 scenes are provided, with optional commentary from Hackford, who has as much love for every bit of cut footage as he does for what made it into the film.
- Extended Musical Scenes (25 min.) – 9 scenes are extended, with some rather vapid video introductions by Jamie Foxx. Not all of these are full songs, but many are, and they're all a fun watch. Note that the standard DVD edition of the movie only included the first two extended scenes, with the rest exclusive to the Limited Edition set. All 9 make their way to the HD DVD.
- Stepping into the Part (10 min.) – Jamie Foxx prepares for the role, with some assistance from the real Ray Charles (prior to this death, obviously). The piece contains some interesting information about the actor's process, including the fact that Foxx was effectively blinded by the prosthetic makeup applications for up to 16 hours a day during the shoot. The footage of Charles teaching him the songs is also priceless.
- Ray Remembered (4 min.) – A bit of fluff here, unfortunately. Quincy Jones, Al Green, and a few others offer testimonials to Ray Charles, but most of the piece is taken up by Hackford and Foxx.
- A Look Inside Ray (3 min.) – A very brief EPK promo that plays up Ray Charles' endorsement of the project.
- A Filmmaker's Journey (10 min.) – Hackford discusses his 15 year development of the film, the difficulty of casting the right actor, and Ray Charles' involvement.
- The Women of Ray (10 min.) – A look at the real women in Charles' life, as well as the actresses who play them.
- An American Story (28 min.) – A summary of Ray Charles' life using clips from the movie and interviews. A lot of this feels rather redundant when you could just watch the movie to get the same info. The latter half of the piece focuses on the film's production and Foxx's performance, but doesn't go into much depth.
- Theatrical Trailer
Ray is a fine musical bio-pic, perhaps burdened too much by formula, but features a tremendous performance by Jamie Foxx and plenty of great music. The technical aspects of the disc are pretty good, and all of the important supplements from the rare Limited Edition DVD have carried over. This is an easy recommendation.
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