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Review: Ray

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We all know the familiar dark glasses, the side-to-side sway and euphoric smile as music pours from the piano, the raspy voice that should be part of the dictionary entry for “soulful”; Ray Charles has been such an icon for so long that it’s probable most of us born after 1970 or so don’t truly appreciate the man and his contributions to American music. Director Taylor Hackford’s Ray aims to correct that oversight and largely succeeds, thanks in large part to an amazing career-making performance by Jamie Foxx.

Jamie FoxxFoxx’s performance as Ray Charles was an amazing confluence of actor and part–Foxx might have been uniquely qualified to play Charles. I certainly can’t imagine anyone having done a better job. Not only does Foxx physically resemble a younger Ray Charles, he has both the acting chops and the musical chops to pull off the role: Foxx studied classical piano at Julliard. Foxx had been tabbed as the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar as early as the summer of ’04, and I don’t believe any other actor ever truly had a chance to win the award.

And Foxx was certainly deserving; it would have been easier to simply impersonate Charles’s voice and his unique mannerisms, but Foxx goes farther and tries to present the complexities of Charles as a person in addition to trying to remain faithful to the outer Ray Charles most of us know. Playing a real person, especially one with whom so much of the audience is likely so familiar, is an inherently difficult and risky proposition, but Foxx truly nailed the part. Ten minutes into the film, he was no longer Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles; he was Ray Charles. (All of that said, I still give my Best Actor award for ’04 to the sublime Paul Giamatti for Sideways, though Foxx would be a very strong runner-up.)

The movie touches on most of the major points of Charles’ life up until he entered rehab to kick his heroin addiction. The exploration of his drug use and the effects it had on him, his family and his career make up a large part of the plot of the movie, but that’s not what the movie’s about and not what I’ll ultimately take away from it. The real focus of the movie, and rightly so, is on Charles’ music and the effcts it had on him, his family–and on the country and society.

Ray (2004)
Grade: B+
Directed By: Taylor Hackford
Written By: Taylor Hackford and James L. White
Starring: Jamie Foxx Kerry Washington Regina King Clifton Powell Curtis Armstrong
Studio: Universal

I’ll admit that I didn’t have much of an appreciation for Charles’ music, or his place in music history, before seeing this movie. I certainly didn’t dislike Charles’ music, but I just had never really been exposed to much of it. Hearing so much of it in such a concentrated does, though, began to make me realize exactly why Charles has long been so venerated. And what really struck me for the first time while watching Ray was just how sexual so much of his early music was–not in that twenty-first century skin-and-shock-value kind of way, but in terms of pure sultry heat. That music, particularly the slinky bass line of “What’d I Say,” made me feel more like getting busy with the wife than anything else I’ve heard in a long time.

Hackford uses the music appropriately, letting the song selections assist with the storytelling; when Ray and his mistress Margie rehearse “Hit the Road, Jack,” the anger and frustration each feels with the other comes through clearly through the lyrics of the song. Each of the musical sequences, in addition to being fantastically entertaining, actually move the characters and the plot forward–not a one of them ever slows the story down.

The story loses its way somewhat during the last thirty minutes or so, though admittedly it’s difficult to find the ending point in a biopic of someone who’s still alive, as Charles was during the production of this movie; where do you end the story of someone who’s ending hasn’t been written yet? Ray ends with a final flashback/dream sequence that the movie could surely have done without, a far too on-the-nose summary of themes any remotely perceptive viewer would already have picked up on during the previous two hours. There were also several plot and character threads that had been introduced and never properly dealt with: did Jeff actually steal from Ray, or was he set up by Joe Adams? We don’t know, and while it might not matter to the plot, it does affect the way in which we see Ray.

Ray provides a fascinating portrait of the creative impulse and the illustrates one of the fundamental rules of creation: Be true to your own voice. You can learn how to do whatever it is you’re trying to do–painting, writing, playing piano, acting, whatever–by mimicking those who are already successful and/or popular. But at some point you have leave the copying behind and find your own way. The world didn’t need another Nat “King” Cole; it needed its first Ray Charles.

Written by Allen

May 13th, 2005 at 1:51 pm

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