Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis, Sharon Warren, C.J. Sanders, Curtis Armstrong, Larenz Tate
Written by: Taylor Hackford, James L. White
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements
Running Time: 153
Date: 09/12/2004

Ray (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

What'd He Say?

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

At the center of any good biographical feature film is a great performance, like Jamie Foxx's body-and-soul channeling of soul music's original ivory-twinkling innovator Ray Charles in Ray. But a great performance does not make a biopic great. To rise above the kind of "true stories" that are the fodder of several assembly-line TV movies every year, a biopic needs to be like Ray Charles -- departing from formula and daring to be different.

Director Taylor Hackford (who once helmed the Chuck Berry concert film Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll) doesn't manage that in Ray, a film that feels more like a two-and-a-half-hour highlights reel from Charles' life. But as a primer on that man's life (musical brilliance, adultery, addiction, and lip service to lyrical controversy and segregation struggles) -- and for a film with a prefabricated story arc and little detail (Charles fathered 12 kids, only three or four of which are even mentioned in the film) -- Ray could be a lot worse.

At the very least it has a passionately devoted, dead-on lead actor -- Foxx not only nails the blind soul king's swaying jitterbug body language, but seems to capture his very essence as a man and musician -- and a whole lot of fantastic, toe-tapping, heart-pumping R&B.

From exploited nightclub piano player to recording artist to worldwide sensation, the picture's plot progresses predictably and often too easily (a record-label producer literally comes knocking on the door of Charles' run-down Harlem flat). It's also plied with generic dialogue like, "Ray, I gotta tell ya, we think you're on to something really big" -- something his producer says when the singer-songwriter's unmistakable style emerges, instantaneously and fully formed, during a single early rehearsal scene while the guys in the sound booth nod enthusiastically and shake hands with each other.

Hackford's only attempts at novelty are really just thinly disguised emotional cheats -- bleached-out flashbacks to Charles' dirt-po'-and-going-blind rural childhood, which are inserted rather deliberately whenever the famous, grown-up Charles does something unsympathetic, like shooting heroin, cheating on his wife (wonderful Kerry Washington is the very portrait of feminine emotional strength in the role), or missing his son's Little League game (the stock Hollywood indicator of absentee fatherhood).

But at least Ray doesn't gloss over such egotistical shortcomings.

As for the film's shortcomings, Foxx goes a long way toward making up for those by completely disappearing into his role, playing his own piano parts (the singing is mostly the real Charles' voice), becoming deeply imbued with his character's infectious music and stage presence -- and doing it all with his eyes closed (like Charles), which is the acting equivalent of boxing with one arm tied behind your back.

Foxx cannot single-handedly turn Ray into a memorable movie, but he does save the film from its own overlong mediocrity.

DVD Details: As I write this, Ray has just been nominated for a whole slew of Oscars, and the front of the video box is adorned with a quote from Joel Siegel (who should know better), saying "One of the best films I ever saw." Let me just say: Ray is a pretty good movie about a great artist, not a great movie. There's a big difference. Universal's new DVD comes with a Taylor Hackford commentary track, and almost 30 minutes of outtakes. Two performances from the film are available uncut, and we get the expected tributes to the late Ray Charles. Best of all is footage of the real Ray during pre-production, jamming with Foxx. It's a good DVD, but not a great one befitting an Oscar nominee, so be on the lookout for a second, far more spectacular "special edition." (JMA)

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