So exactly how much bearing does the skill of the performances have on the overall quality of the movie? Should we give a subpar picture a pass because the acting is of such high caliber? Or should we judge it an even bigger failure, for squandering such fine performances at the service of a half-hearted, underdeveloped vehicle?
These are the questions posed by Taylor Hackford's Ray, the 2004 biopic of R&B legend Ray Charles, for which Jamie Foxx won the Academy Award for Best Actor. That recognition, and the countless accolades that preceded it that awards season, was richly deserved--it's a tremendous, accomplished performance, one that surpasses imitation and becomes an embodiment, a reincarnation, a riveting piece of acting and musical skill. The trouble is, the film surrounding this performance is nowhere near as loose, funky, powerful, or dangerous as Foxx's show-stopping turn. Ray is entirely competent, and that's the problem: It is simply too solemn and workmanlike in its strict adherence to the conventions of the Hollywood biopic, especially considering that it is the profile of a groundbreaker.
James L. White's screenplay is a pile-up of short, mostly shallow scenes; every line is pure exposition, laughably free of context. "No one's ever combined R&B and gospel before!" Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) declares to a room full of people, who all know this information. "'I've Got a Woman' is a smash!" The narrative, which runs from forties to the sixties (with flashbacks to Charles's childhood, and an epilogue in 1979), is maddeningly conventional, all compressed storytelling and music montages. It gallops through the high points at a breakneck pace, even within its leisurely 153-minute running time; it's almost frantic in its attempts to smash everything in. Example: we have a studio scene where Ray's sound finally comes together, followed by a ten-second intro to Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), then the song plays back as the record plays on a turntable, then he's suddenly in a radio interview for the song, and the phone rings in the studio, and hey! It's Ray's future wife! And then he's on a date with her, and then they're immediately in love, and so on and so on and so on. It's all too tight, too easy, and too, too predictable.
Once he becomes a star, he's plagued by the expected problems with womanizing and drug abuse, but again, we get no real insight into or motivation for his bad habits, and the scenes dealing with them are reheated leftovers from other, better movies. Much is made of his business acumen, and deservedly so, but then what are we to make of the subplot concerning Joe Adams (Harry Lennix), who breezes in once Ray is a superstar and quickly takes over the business end of the operations, muscling out Ray's loyal long-time right-hand man, Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell)? Adams is played as such a smooth operator that we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does; once Jeff is gone, he's forgotten. (Charles's oldest son, a co-producer of the film, led Ray's children in accusing Adams of mismanagement after the performer's death.)
Meantime, Hackford pushes in more gaudy musical montages, filling the screen with beauty shots, newspaper headlines, venue marquees, and welcome banners; maybe he's trying to work old school, but this style of filmmaking was old hat in the '40s musicals Hackford stole them from. The big psychological payoff of the third act is rushed and trite, and the last ten minutes is done in such a rush that it genuinely feels like they just ran out of time, a feeling not assuaged by the "over the next 40 years..." title card and the tacked-on epilogue.
But the film is beautifully designed--the costumes, cars, and interiors are all just right (with the possible exception of the nightclubs, which all look the same in the first half)--and impeccably acted. One can't say enough about the sheer brilliance of Foxx's work; he has the guy down to a tee, and his musical performances (Foxx is a trained classical pianist) are absolutely convincing. But there are several other actors of note--Terrence Howard's oily sleaze is welcome, as are Robert Wisdom and Wendell Pierce (both from The Wire), while Schiff and Armstrong are a great two-act as the Atlantic ownership. Regina King is absolutely fierce as the "other woman," back-up singer Margie Hendricks, and while Kerry Washington's accent isn't entirely convincing (at least early on) her wonderfully expressive face says more than any of her boilerplate lines.
Much like the man himself, they can't get the personal stuff right, but they sure do right by the music. The studio scenes are rollicking, and the picture roars to life in the thrilling sequence in which "What'd I Say" is improvised live on stage--it's an electrifying scene (one that ends, of course, just as it gets going). These scenes manage to capture the exhilarating kick of music happening, of music history being made, of a genius at work. They are about creativity, and next to them, Ray's scenes of tired theatrics don't stand a chance.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Universal brings Ray to Blu-ray with a first-class MPEG-4 AVC transfer. Color reproduction is muted but lovely, from the luscious greens of an early roadside scene to the amber-hued flashback sequences to a candy-coated beach dance number to the almost-psychedelic withdrawal nightmare . Grain is discernible but not distracting, and skin textures are nicely detailed (particularly in Foxx and Washington's first post-coital scene). Black levels are rich and inky, particularly in the on-stage scenes, and the monochromatic, gun-metal blue image of the "Hard Times" performance is just plain gorgeous. Say what you will about the film itself, but the 1.85:1 image has never looked better.
From the first notes of "What'd I Say" in the opening credits, Ray's English 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is a marvel. Brassy performance scenes are nicely separated, though slightly more front-heavy than expected; rear channels are more present in the flashback scenes (clanging bottles, clucking chickens), and in studio scenes like the "Georgia" session, which is richly immersive. Dialogue reproduction is clean and clear in the center channel as well.
French 5.1 and Descriptive Video Service tracks are also available, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The copious bonus features from Ray's original DVD release have been ported over, along with a few additions. First up is an "Introduction by Director Taylor Hackford" (1:34), in which he talks briefly about the film's 15-year journey to the screen and the accumulation of the bonus materials. The fourteen Deleted and Extended Scenes (27:36), available with or without Hackford's commentary, help flesh out the picture a bit, and while a couple are throwaways--I can't imagine anyone actually thought the old dance man's full routine would've made the final cut--a couple (like him stopping the show to call out a strung-out trumpeter, and his blow-off of the Atlantic heads) are quite strong. Jamie Foxx introduces the nine Extended Musical Scenes (25:33), which are an invaluable addition; the wonderful musical sequences are too often cut short in the film itself, so the longer cuts are most appreciated (though we still don't hear the full songs, in most cases).
"Stepping into the Part" (10:40) opens with remarkable footage of Foxx and Charles meeting and playing together in 2002, and then moves to interviews, behind-the-scenes shots, and archival footage as Foxx and Hackford explain how they built his specific characterization. "Ray Remembered" (4:03) is a brief, affectionate tribute to Charles, with testimonials from not only the filmmakers but from his fellow musicians. "The Women of Ray" (9:55) spotlights the actresses in the film and the roles their characters played in his story; "The Filmmakers' Journey" (9:22) and "A Look Inside Ray" (3:20) are brief, EPK-style making-of pieces, while "Ray: An American Story" (28:47) is a more in-depth look at the making of the film (utilizing some of the same sound bites and footage as the other featurettes).
"I'll probably be talking all the way through this," warns Taylor Hackford at the beginning of his Audio Commentary, leading us to wonder how he thinks audio commentaries work. At any rate, his track is, indeed, chatty and informative; his passion and commitment to the project is palpable, and he packs plenty of background into it.
The original Theatrical Trailer (2:48) is also included and the disc is BD-Live compatible, though there's no additional content related to the film available.
It's hard to say why Ray plays so badly a mere six or so years after its initial release--perhaps it is the memory of the superior Walk the Line, which covered similar ground the following year, or maybe the spot-on parody of Walk Hard not long after. The film is still worth seeing, for the virtuosity of Foxx's work and the energy of the music scenes. But much of it plays at the level of a TV movie--and a mediocre one at that.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.