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Universal // PG-13 // October 29, 2004
List Price: Unknown

Review by Kim Morgan | posted October 30, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Ray Charles was a hep cat. He certainly was never this lackluster.

But Ray, Taylor Hackford's biopic on the legendary, influential musician, offers small glimpses into the legend and life of Ray Charles with a pretty paint by numbers approach that screams, cable movie. Taking on, what truly is a colossal task, the picture turns its cinematic pages with an and-then-THIS happened approach that offers little personality past Jamie Foxx's performance as Charles and the brilliant music spiking the celluloid.

The narrative moves, for the most part chronologically, choosing to begin in 1948 when 17-year old Ray journey's to Seattle, the city where he formed the McSon trio and met his lifelong friend, Quincy Jones. It ambles along with his touring the Chitlin circuit, his musical ascension, his marriage to Della Bea (Kerry Washington), his many affairs (chiefly singer Margie Hendrix played by Regina King and Mary Ann Fisher played by Aunjanue Ellis), his heroin use and in the film's greatest sequences, his performing and recording of music. When the movie delves into Ray creating a name for himself innovating a new style of music, blending gospel and blues (to many Christian's disapproval), it's at its most compelling. Signing on to Atlantic record with mentor's Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), it's a kick to watch Ray, and really, Foxx as Ray, record his songs. His negotiations are somewhat intriguing as well. As portent of his tight business practices to come, Ray in earlier gigs, insisted on being paid in singles so not to be cheated. When he's torn over leaving Atlantic, he changes his tune quickly when offered the sweet deal at ABC-Paramount where he was the first artist to own his own masters. The reaction Ertegun displays is not consistent with fact (Atlantic was pissed) but it makes a sweet moment of one businessman understanding the other. With this, Hackford is saying that, no matter how many biographies discuss his oftentimes cold business manner, you can't really blame the guy for being strict after enduring a past where others, dreadfully, attempted to short-change a blind man.

Never one to forget his roots, the film dips into flashback mode to tell the story of his up bringing, a part of his life that Charles once said: "Even compared to other blacks...we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground." Shot in a saturated colored, dream-like quality, these moments recall Ray watching his brother drown and losing his sight at seven years old. His strong minded mother aided him in becoming a person of incredible self reliance (Charles never used a cane or a seeing-eye dog) and in one scene many will find utter treacle, she watches, in tears, her young son fall while never lifting a finger to help him. Wandering around their shack he uses his hearing and touch to pick up a bug and, wiping away his tears, happily, listens to its chirping. It's potentially corny and verging on poetic license overload, but given Charles stupendous musical ear, it's not out of bounds and actually, quite beautiful.

But other forays into his past don't work as faultlessly. Hackford uses the mother/brother drama as a thread throughout the picture to showcase a haunted Charles and perhaps reason for his drug use (which Charles, in real life blamed only on himself, frequently citing the use as a way to feel good--junk could be a good time). Its no secret the death of his brother remained a heartbreak, but to depict Charles having something like hallucinations comes off nearly ridiculous, insinuating that Charles was slightly insane. In one scene, he reaches into his suitcase only to see (or imagine seeing) water and a little hand emerging, horror-movie style. It's cheap and easy.

Foxx, on the other hand, with his perfected impersonation of Charles, right down to the staggered speaking manner and rocking body, provides the film with its joy and depth. In moments of cheekiness, he captures the charm and sexual appeal of Charles, a guy who though professional, even when high, loved women and fun, characteristically refraining from discussing his problems and instead, bleeding through his music. And lip-synching to Charles' melodies, the chameleon-like Foxx masterfully re-creates Ray's performances, including a zenith not only in Charles career, but in the annals of popular music. In a moment that seems like movie fantasy but isn't, Charles, after running out of material during a gig begins messing with a bass riff on his electric piano while instructing the band and his back-up singers, the Raylettes, to follow what he's doing. The result? An improvised, raucous version of "What'd I Say" the song that made the call and response of "Unnnh! Unnnh! Oh! Oh!" a monster cross-over hit.

At this and this moment only, Ray feels vivacious and soulful. But nothing else in the picture matches its impact and the film drops down into stock trappings of the biopic. Great directors understand that even if facts are altered or character's condensed (as is the case with Ray), the thrust of the film moves beyond the character's biography and into deeper waters. Whether a film is sweet natured, like Tim Burton's Ed Wood, or unrelentingly disturbing like Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, an excellent biopic shouldn't feel like a biopic and instead, a movie that connotes a passion and vision that resonates beyond its subject. Though Ray is certainly inspirational (how can Ray Charles life not be?), the film rarely penetrates.

Part of this is Ray Charles real-life complexity. In interviews, the man was so smooth and ready to a laugh, he could be simultaneously revealing and purposefully private. He offered the tumults of his pain and ranges of his joy through music and songs like "Drown in My Own Tears" or "Let's Go Get Stoned" show his emotional range. As Charles told a reporter, "I'm the kind of guy, I conform when it suits me, and when it doesn't suit me I don't." So provocative, magnetic, supremely cool and hard edged was he, that Ray, the movie could never measure up to the genius himself.

Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun



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