Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Soul of "Ray"

Happy Halloween! It's as good an occasion as any, I suppose, to start posting my movie reviews, though this review's not especially seasonal. Anyway, I have no idea how regularly I'll be doing this - but I suspect just enough to keep my hand in.


directed by Taylor Hackford
starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, and a buncha other people

For a movie that clocks in at over two and a half hours, “Ray” moves at a remarkably lively pace. That’s hardly surprising, given the subject matter. The fact that a movie about the late great Ray Charles never lets up on the momentum simply reflects the incredible richness of the man’s life and his music. As a film, however, “Ray” is better served by the latter, which gives it an irresistible swing and vitality, than the former, which makes the whole production feel frantically overstuffed yet underwritten.

Biopics generally have a tough row to hoe, and artists’ biopics may have it the hardest. By trying to draw explicit connections between life and art, they often take on a graceless literal-mindedness. They also tend to skim the surface of the artist’s life and his work without providing any real insight into either.

To some extent “Ray” falls prey to both tendencies—perhaps inevitably, in light of how much ground it tries to cover. Director Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Devil’s Advocate,” “Proof of Life”) traces not only Ray Charles Robinson’s evolution as one of the most brilliant innovators of American music, ever, but also his savvy entrepreneurship, his confrontations with racism, his addiction to heroin and women, his troubled marriage and love affairs, interspersed with recurring flashbacks to his childhood, when he lost his sight. The movie shuttles from one phase of Ray’s life to another so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up with where he is, where he’s come from, where he’s going—or when, for that matter, particularly since neither Ray nor any of the other key players in his life ages visibly over two decades. The historical backdrop goes by in a blur, and dozens of characters flit in and out of the picture, mocking any efforts to keep track of their names or their roles in Ray’s life. A few stand out more vividly than others, most notably Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun, the wry, clear-eyed visionary of Atlantic Records who helped Ray find his own voice and nurtured his early genre-blending musical experimentation. And among the countless women in Ray’s life, his steel-magnolia wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), and sassy backup singer and mistress, Marjorie (Regina King), suitably impress—though both pale next to the white-hot, rail-thin intensity of Sharon Warren as Ray’s young mother.

As Ray himself, Jamie Foxx is a marvel, easily eclipsing his solid supporting turn in last summer's "Collateral." Sketch comedy must have perfected his gift for sheer mimicry: his rendition of the famous voice, mannerisms, body language, even the smile, is so dead-on Ray Charles that it comes as a jar when, in a dream sequence fairly late in the movie, we see him with his eyes open, sans sunglasses, and instantly think, “Hey, it’s Jamie Foxx!” Up until that point, it’s a bravura performance, and clearly also a heartfelt one. Yet as a character, Ray remains oddly elusive, an indefinable combination of charm and hardheadedness, good nature and cold blood, strength in adversity and weakness to temptation. In the childhood-flashback sequences, Hackford seems to be vaguely pursuing two different, and somewhat contradictory, pop-psych theories of Ray’s moral character (or lack thereof). One, far the less convincing and more clumsily executed motif, is premised on Ray’s supposedly ineradicable guilt over the death of his younger brother. The other is somewhat subtler: that Ray’s mother, in teaching him the hard way not to depend on anyone but himself, may have made him incapable of loyalty to anyone but himself. Bad as this was for Ray’s relationships, it was very good for his music—which the movie suggests was the only real vehicle for his self-fulfillment.

Which brings me back to the music. Hackford gets this part absolutely right. Weaving all the greatest hits (spanning from the infectious early hit “Mess Around” to the wistful “Georgia On My Mind”) into the larger arc of Ray’s life without for the most part turning them into artificial showpieces or narrative devices, he lets them tell the story of the sensational musical development, from jazz to gospel and blues to pop and country-western, of one of our greatest original crossover artists. And therein lies “Ray”’s little secret: the soul of this movie about the “genius of soul” lies in the music, not the melodramatic debris of its human relationships. Somewhere, Ray Charles has got to be smiling at that.

RATING: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)


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