A labor of love for director Taylor Hackford (who worked with Ray Charles on the production) and actor Jamie Foxx, "Ray" is one of the year's finer efforts - a one-two punch for Foxx after his tremendous performance in Michael Mann's "Collateral". The picture opens in 1951, with Ray Charles Robinson (Foxx) journeying to Seattle to perform in a club. The young performer quickly makes a major impression on the local scene and rises to greater levels of popularity, but not before many try to take advantage of the blind singer.
The film starts there and bounces back-and-forth between time periods. We watch Ray as he struggles with drug addiction, marital problems and the stresses of becoming a recording star. There are also moments where the movie flashes back to Ray's troubled childhood, which included the death of his brother in front of Ray's eyes, and his own battles with his diminishing vision, which went completely when he was seven. His mother (Sharon Warren in an excellent performance) realizes that her son is going to not have a lot of options in his life, so she teaches him - through discipline and tough love - a great deal about how to rely on himself.
The main anchor of the film is Foxx's performance. Rightly hailed as one of the finest of the year, Foxx really has taken his career (with his efforts in films like "Booty Call" not that long ago, I really have to give him credit for a remarkable turnaround) to another level. Charles is such a famed personality that it'd be tough for anyone to get the musician's mannerisms and ways down exactly right, but Foxx has done it surprisingly well - the actor really does become Charles here. Although Foxx is lip-synching the music during the film, he does an excellent job at it - and he is actually playing the piano himself, which is quite impressive. Supporting performances, including Aunjanue Ellis and Kerry Washington as two of Charles' affairs, are compelling.
The rest of the picture does not quite live up to Foxx's performance, although it is certainly a successful biopic overall. Hackford simply lets the film run too long - at over 150 minutes, the picture could have lost about 25 and not only been a bit less repetitive, but had better pacing and a bit more dramatic impact. Foxx's performance is also what gives the film energy; Hackford's rather standard and straightforward presentation doesn't. The $30m production does look technically good (it's a very fine recreation of the time, for example), considering the small budget, but I suppose the film could have used the kind of visual energy that Foxx brings to the role.
While not doing anything really new with the biopic genre, the film still grabbed my attention thanks to great performances (especially Foxx's amazing effort) and enough memorable moments. A little bit of cutting would have improved things, but this is still a very fine film.
Note: The DVD includes both the 152-minute theatrical cut of the movie and an extended cut that's about 178 minutes. This is not listed as a "director's cut" anywhere on the box, but the Internet Movie Database does note a 178-minute "director's cut", so this may be it. When playing the extended edition, viewers will see an icon and then be automatically taken to the additional footage. The additional footage is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
VIDEO: "Ray" is presented by Universal pictures in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is an excellent transfer that presents the film with very few concerns. With the majority of the supplements included on the second disc, the movie has more space to breathe on the first disc. The image remains sharp and well-defined, with consistent detail and good small object detail often visible.
Some minor edge enhancement is occasionally present, but the image seemed free of pixelation and the print looked to be in tip-top shape, with only one or two specks. None of the problems spotted were at all intrusive. Colors remained rich and vivid, with very nice saturation. Overall, a solid effort from Universal.
SOUND: "Ray" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a terrific sound mix that highlights the music magnificently, offering a rich spread across the front speakers that is often dazzling. Surrounds kick in with nice reinforcement of the music, but they also deliver a fair amount of sound effects and general ambience. Audio quality was absolutely stellar - dialogue remained clear and natural and music hit with a richness, clarity and dynamic feel that really rocked the house. Overall, I was greatly pleased with the audio.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a commentary from director Taylor Hackford. Hackford is very passionate about the project, and chats intensely about the characters in the picture and their real-life history, as well as a lot of stories about Charles's life. There's some nice tidbits offered about the production, including some technical details, but a lot of the track is dedicated to the life of Ray Charles and how Hackford went about portraying it.
The deleted scenes presented in the extended presentation are available on the second disc, along with optional commentary from director Taylor Hackford. Next on the second disc are extended versions of the "Hit the Road Jack" and "What Kind of Man Are You?" performances. "A Look Inside Ray" is a very brief (only a little over three minutes) promotional featurette. "Stepping Into the Part" is a 10-minute piece that's certainly of more interest, as it looks at how Foxx got into the part, including showing footage of Foxx and Charles playing music together. Finally, "Ray Remembered" is a thoughtful, but brief look back at the recently departed musician's legendary career.
Rounding out the DVD are previews for other Universal titles and the film's theatrical trailer. The bonus features on the second disc offer optional English captions & optional English/French subtitles.
Final Thoughts: Jamie Foxx's outstanding performance pushes "Ray" forward and gives it life and energy. The rest of the film is satisfactory and could certainly lose about 25 minutes, but I still found the whole package enjoyable and compelling. Universal's DVD edition provides very good audio/video quality and a nice helping of supplements. Recommended.