Ray (2004) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for drug use, sexuality and language
Running Time: 158 min.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis, Sharon Warren, C.J. Sanders, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff
Director: Taylor Hackford
Screenplay: James L. White
Ray is a big-time bio-pic about one of the most popular and influential musicians of the 20th century, Ray Charles, who passed away shortly before the filmís release in 2004. Hailed as a musical genius, in some part due to his ability to overcome his blindness and make music that rivaled his contemporaries, Ray Charles left his humble roots growing up the hard way in Georgia to try to make something of himself, instilled with the belief that nothing should be an obstacle to fulfilling his dreams. Itís an uphill battle, as itís difficult enough being blind, but even more so trying to break in the country and western circuits as a Black man in a very segregated America.
Ray concentrates on four areas of Rayís life. The primary one concentrates on Rayís musical path, and the road from obscure opening act to a major contender in the musical world. A good deal of time is spent on Ray Charlesí love life, especially in his infidelity with a couple of his backing singers, and how it affected his marriage to his beloved wife, Della Bea (Washington, She Hate Me). The third aspect covered is Rayís addiction to heroin, what it meant to his music, and how it affected his relationships. Lastly, there are flashbacks to Rayís childhood, including the death of his brother, the independence taught by his tough-love mother, and how it shaped his hopes and fears he would face later in life.
The big buzz about Ray comes not through the content, which is done in a competent but typical Hollywood mode, but in the quality performance by comedian/singer/actor Jamie Foxx (Collateral, Shade), who does well copying some of the trademark speech patterns and mannerisms of the real Ray Charles. Although he does lip-synch his performances, you donít tend to notice, as it is done so well. The Oscar-voters love to give awards to actors who play characters with physical or mental adversity, so expect at least a nomination for Foxx here.
At two and a half hours, Ray is a long film, and even though it only covers part of Charlesí life, this does feel like the ďReaderís DigestĒ condensed version. Scenes are contrived to move plot points along in a hurry, as major events and conversations run very briskly through. The main reason for this is due to the heavy emphasis on the music, with most of Rayís biggest hits performed in their entirety. However, even these are constrained by time, and almost all of the songs are performed on the spot the first time, leading you to believe that everything Ray Charles ever did was put to wax on the first take.
Taylor Hackford (The Devil's Advocate, Against All Odds) does a fine job keeping all of the elements together, although cramming in so many themes tends to have none of them explored as fully as they normally would be had this concentrated more on just one or two phases of his life. Itís a good looking movie, with no expense spared in the recreation, although it never really colors outside the designated lines to offer something unexpected.
In the end, while this movie did shed some light on many things I didnít know about Ray Charles as a musician and public figure, I still never really got the feeling I really know him as a person. Only the flashbacks to trauma in his earlier childhood are offered to explain away any of his motivation, and little is offered to shed light on Rayís many influences to being the prodigious performer he seemed to be from the outset. Still, with such solid performances, fluid direction, and fantastic music, Ray is worthy of a viewing for all who love and respect his music, and for those who enjoy nostalgic dramatic biographies.
©2004 Vince Leo