I’m a little behind on watching all the Oscar hopefuls this year, which is why I’m only reviewing Ray now and not two months ago. One of the big reasons I actually avoided this film when it first arrived in theatres was because it had an overplayed trailer which did nothing but showcase how well Jamie Foxx was able to impersonate Ray Charles. Which is all well and good, but not being particularly interested in Ray Charles as a film subject, I just wasn’t pulled in.
Between its first and second run in theatres, I had enough time to let the trailer dissolve from my brain and I began to think about the film objectively. Given all the critical praise it’s received, and the remarkable performances that were said to have been captured, I grew intrigued, paid my four dollars and waited with no expectations.
What I watched transcended normal biopic limitations and myopia; this wasn’t a film about a legend who sailed through his life and career, but a man who deeply cared about his true passion, music, and yet struggled with the most personal aspects of his life. Ray is not a self-congratulating film; rather, it is a consummate filmmaker’s work of art.
Director Taylor Hackford (Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life) and Writer James L. White clearly were more interested in creating a cinematic mood, a story of brilliance and darkness and a biography hiding nothing of the man behind the glasses, rather than simply showcasing Ray Charles’ music. Indeed, if anything, the film lacks enough of the musical inspirations and innovations that made Charles famous, and dwells too singly upon the personal aspects of his life. Nevertheless, the film is a solid story, backed by very strong performances and a fantastic soundtrack of Ray Charles hits.
Jamie Foxx has probably never played a more recognizable role, and his ability at mimicry becomes lost in the trueness of his performance. I had no difficulty forgetting I was watching Jamie Foxx. With his crooked, toothy smile and the customary swaying of his entire upper torso, Foxx doesn’t deal out caricature, but rather captures Charles’ every detail and nuance with sureness and enthusiasm. Perhaps his performance is so real because he actually wore eye prosthetics that blinded him during the shoot. In addition, he actually plays all the songs featured in the film himself. Charles’ infectious spirit, rollicking talent, and boundless gift of reaching souls through his multitude of musical styles is the highlight of Foxx’s performance, and is just enough to counter the stultifying darkness of Charles’ alter-ego.
Foxx is matched by a cast equally capable and enjoyable. Curtis Armstrong caused me to do a double take as Ahmet, an Atlantic Records producer and one of Ray Charles’ friends. He is one of the film’s more likeable characters, and I felt attracted to his genuine care for Charles as a member of the record company’s family, his gentle encouragement of his enormous talent, and his magnanimousness in the face of losing Charles to a more lucrative record deal with another company.
Regina King and Aunjanue Ellis share Charles as jealous girlfriends and members of his own selected Raylettes. They both provide convincing performances, though their material is a goldmine compared to Kerry Washington’s Della Bea Charles, Ray’s long-suffering wife. She digs deeply to find the heart of a person who truly loves Charles, not for his music or his talent or his money, but because of who he is to her. She beseeches Ray to open his heart to her, knowing that he is still entrapped in a self-made prison, knowing that he may never come around.
Also notable is Sharon Warren, in her debut role, as Ray’s mother, who from the time he was born raised him with toughness and undying love. Her toughness is what teaches Charles how to hear the world when his eyes are gone, and she conveys this simply and powerfully through sharp glances and longing looks at her son, knowing that his future will be a hard road if he does not take it in his hand. Her performance is riveting, and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress might be in her future.
Despite the amazing performances, a few problems mar this otherwise fantastic picture. To most people, Ray Charles made music the way God made the world. His innovations in rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, and country/western were the turning point in musical history, yet they are glossed over in favour of the intensely charged behind-the-velvet-curtain story of Charles’ drug addiction and his failures as a husband and a father. Whilst his victory over years’ long heroin addiction is quite a story, its darkness fails to sustain what should have been a more evenhanded look at Charles, both as a performer and an artist, and as a man struggling with demons. White and Hackford attempt to tie Charles’ drug addiction to his guilt over seeing his younger brother drown at age five and the torment of being blinded at age seven, but the connection is feeble and unconvincing. The ending is abrupt and seems forced, a compromise perhaps in the face of studio pressure to keep the film under two and a half hours.
From early childhood to his first days on the road, to Seattle where he first made a name for himself and began a career that would eventually span nearly fifty years, Ray is intelligently told and marvelously portrayed. Despite its unevenness, it still manages to inspire and convey with the most honest of expressions the life of an extraordinary artist and human being.
Fringe Rating: out of 5