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Ray

RAY
Running Time: 2:24
Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King

If you have heard anything about Ray, you have probably heard about the advance critical buzz for the picture and Jamie Foxx's portrayal of music legend Ray Charles. I'm happy to report that, for the most part, Ray lives up to its hype. I do not think it will walk away with the Oscar for Best Picture, as a few have suggested. But it might be nominated, and Foxx ought to get a nod for Best Actor.

Before I gush, let me note that the film is not without its flaws. One of these may be endemic to the genre of the musical biopic. A movie of this sort is rarely made unless the musician is well known in the first place. Accordingly, the story arc will generally not be surprising: everybody knows that Buddy and Richie should not get on that airplane, don't they? Ray departs from this formula a little by focusing on the first half of his career, but there are few surprises here for a Charles fan.

Another perhaps unavoidable problem is that the movie was made with Ray's blessing and cooperation. Thus, the film sketches some of Ray's warts, but there is a fair amount of Hollywood sugar-coating of them throughout. To take just one example, the casual viewer may be under the impresssion that Ray had only one child outside his marriage, when the actual number is considerably larger.

However, whether by choice or necessity, director Taylor Hackford gives Ray such a sumpuous, classic Hollywood treatment that I did not feal cheated by its sins of omission. In a particularly smart choice, Hackford hired Imaginary Forces -- an effects company known for its work on opening titles (e.g., Seven) -- to do not only the credits, but montage sequences that update a classic style and recall movies from the period during which Charles ascended the charts. It's a move not unlike Kubrick or Hitchcock using Saul Bass in both the credits and special sequences; a little gutsy, and it pays off nicely.

Of course, the flip side of having Ray's cooperation is that you get the use of his inimitable voice and specially recorded material -- pluses that undoubtedly outweighed the minuses in the minds of those who brought this project into being.

However, Ray's voice would not be enough to carry the film if the many musical sequences looked like bad lip-syncing. Jamie Foxx's approximation of Ray Charles is so naturalistic that I really ahd to listen to pick out the moments when Foxx was singing himself (as I believe he does in covering "Straighten Up and Fly Right"). I did not see Collateral, so I can say that this is far and away the best work Foxx has ever done, including Any Given Sunday. Foxx has said in interviews that wearing opaque contact lenses helped immerse him in the role. That's probably true, as his least convincing scene is one in which he is not wearing them. Yet when Foxx could see himself performing, I would have thought there would be a danger of overdoing Ray's mannerisms to the point of caricature. It's to Foxx's (and perhaps Hackford's) credit that this never happens.

Accordingly, when Ray records a song like "The Mess-Around," you cannot help but feel the excitement that must have been felt in the studio when it was originally recorded. And I must note that Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds) and Richard Schiff (The West Wing) are a delight during these and other scenes in their relatively small roles as Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Similarly, in the scene in which "What'd I Say" is created, you really do get the sense of electricity that must have been felt in the room. All of you Pate fans may remember such moments yourselves.

The movie also does a nice job of conveying that what made Charles so distinctive was his ability to move from style to style, or mix them together in ways that usually confounded the industry, and occasionally the public. Those who only know Charles through his music may be surprised to discover that he was controversial in the black community for crossing gospel with R&B before he was controversial to both black and white audiences in crossing over into country music (and contrypolitan in particular). Sadly, though understandably, the movie largely ignores his jazz work (except for the early nod in the direction of Art Tatum).

While the musical moments are paramount in Ray, the crew does a creditable job capturing Ray's other professional and personal moments. The movie shows that blindness made Ray Charles into a canny businessman, who capitalized on his early success to place himself in a position then without precedent in the record business. He also parlayed his later success into making himself largely independent from the industry.

Indeed, Ray is largely a movie about how Ray's upbringing and misfortunes placed the idea of self-reliance at the core of his personality. This quality can be seen as the source of his problems as much as the solution to them. It may be the source of the self-confidence that allows him to think that he will not become a drug addict. It may also explain the degree to which held the people in his life at a certain distance at best, and often deemed them disposable. This is seen most acutely in his relationships with the women in his life -- well-played by Kerry Washington and Regina King, among others. But the same dynamic is visible in his professional relationships.

Given that the movie focuses on Ray's peak creative years and that Ray's death was not particularly dramatic. The ending, while uplifting, does not match the power of what preceded it. Nevertheless, Ray was highly satisfying; I heartily recommend it.


Added:  Monday, November 08, 2004
Reviewer:  Karl
Score:
hits: 3674
Language: eng

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