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Ray

Reviewed By DrChumley
Posted 11/01/04 00:06:46

"Foxx is amazing, the film: so-so"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There has been a great deal of talk swirling around the release of Ray, the biographical film based on Ray Charles Robinson. Rumors of Oscar nominations for the leading man, Jamie Foxx, have been rampant. But despite the rumors and hype surrounding this film, Director Taylor Hackford (The Devil’s Advocate, When We Were Kings) proves in one less-than-fell swoop what Will Smith learned the hard way: Creating a good biopic is hard. And sometimes, those in charge just aren’t up to the task.

Ray follows the life of Ray Charles as he begins his career, discovers drugs and women, begins to create a name for himself, records hit after hit, and eventually hits rock bottom. Played to a twitchy, hyperactive, swaggering perfection by Jamie Foxx, Ray flashes back regularly to his poverty-stricken early life when his younger brother drowned, when he begins to lose his sight, and when he learns to play the piano. “Don’t let nobody turn you into a cripple,” Ray’s mother constantly admonishes him during the frequent flashbacks.

As Ray sets off on his own, he learns from experience how to negotiate a world in which honesty and forthrightness are not admirable traits. Ray asks to be paid in one dollar bills so he can be certain he isn’t being cheated. He plays “country dumb” in order to make sure that record labels and managers aren’t trying to bilk him out of his hard-earned money.

Along the way, however, Ray immerses himself in the worlds of drugs and women. A hard heroine habit and long-term infidelity begin to take its toll on Ray’s personal life. In the end, it is Ray’s own actions which turn him into the cripple about which he was warned by his mother.

Jamie Foxx deserves every single award nomination or statuette that he will receive for his portrayal of Ray Charles. An accomplished pianist in his own right, Foxx used his mimicry skill honed in the world of cheesy television comedy to channel the spirit of the then-still-living Ray Charles. The sway, the tapping of the feet, the high-lipped smile, the rapid-fire patter of Charles’ natural cadence: they’re all there with stunning perfection. And what’s more, Foxx manages to find all these affectations while still maintaining an iron clad emotional connection to all that’s going on around him. He has come a long way from his big-lipped proclamation, “I’ll rock your world” on In Living Color. Were Foxx’s acting the only measure of the film’s quality, Ray would be one of the greatest films in the last 25 years.

Unfortunately, the acting skills of the leading man are only a small part of what should be a cohesively crafted film. Tragically, the man at the helm of this film, Hackford, whose previous directing credentials do nothing to qualify his to direct a film of this magnitude, is never able decide what kind of film he wants Ray to be. Hackford jumps between artsy camera work and abstract flashbacks to hyper-realism to cheesy montages with newspaper clippings and billboards flying across the screen while a bus or train drives across an expanse of countryside in the background. And he does it all without any rhyme, reason, or likely any thought at all. The film looks like it was edited as a made-for-TV movie—with multiple blackouts as though the film is cutting to commercial. The overall result is a mish-mash of pseudo-high art and populist schlock that makes Ray feel disjointed, mulish, and overly-long.

The screenplay, written by James I. White (who, according to IMDB.com, does not have any other writing credits to his name) is also partially to blame for the uneven feel of the film. I don’t envy the task of trying to create a dramatic screenplay based on true life: because even when wonderful or catastrophic things happen in real life, they are usually small blips on what is otherwise a relatively boring, uninterrupted course of monotony. That being said, much care could have been taken to weave those elements of Charles’ life together in a more film-friendly fashion.

And, of course, since this movie is about a musician, the music must be mentioned. Interspersing Foxx’s virtuosic piano skills and voice with the original recordings of Ray Charles is done nearly seamlessly. As a professional vocalist and pianist myself, I was able to detect some of the more blatant switches, but the majority of the audience that goes to see this film will never notice. Besides the stirring scenes of live music in the clubs or those exhilarating moments in the studio where everything clicks, Charles’ own music is often used as underscoring to various scenes, in essence showing us, at least in part, some of the inspiration for Charles’ greatest hits. The film scoring by Craig Armstrong wisely stays in the background and allows the focus to rest squarely on the broad shoulders of the songs with which Ray Charles changed the popular American music landscape.

Despite its many structural flaws, Ray is a fascinating glance into the tormented soul of a pioneer in American music. Anyone who loves good music will appreciate this film. Additionally, the spellbinding performance of Foxx, along with those of all of his co-stars, makes this film a must-see.

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