Release Date: October 29th, 2004; January 21st, 2005 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama; Music
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren
Ray Charles’ drive and charisma gave him a larger-than-life persona, so big that even a severely musically deficient 20-year-old knows who he is. Unfortunately, and indeed surprisingly, Taylor Hackford’s biographical drama about the electric man struggles to maintain the energy that Charles himself boasted in abundance. This is by no means down to Jamie Foxx’s sizzling turn as the title character, or the foot-stomping, arm-swinging music splashed throughout, but instead is a result of a pretty dreary and repetitive narrative presenting a story that deserves so much better.
We see music in his eyes. His effortless piano-playing hands are reflected in those iconic sunglasses. Ray Charles is at one with sound. This is the opening shot of Ray and if you didn’t know already, you do now — he is the music man. The film details the rise of Ray Charles Robinson, a young boy who became a pioneering musician after a childhood ravaged by tragedy and loss. Growing up in the 1930s on a Northern Florida plantation, young Ray and his brother are cared for by their head-strong mother as they bounce with liveliness amongst the dust. The duo share a close bond and get up to just about as much mischief as any other child does, but it is the tragic loss of his brother that kick-starts the chain of events which will eventually see Ray completely blind and hugely successful. His mother, played magnificently by Sharon Warren, teaches Ray that his deficiency is only such at the surface, that he needs to learn to live and strive on his own (“Remember you’re going blind, but you ain’t stupid”). Warren may just be the star-turn behind Foxx here, as she movingly portrays a woman who is a beacon of strength driven by frailty, and justifies the inclusion of countless conveniently placed flashbacks.
Ray’s childhood in Florida is depicted throughout the drama by way of a number of flashbacks, and these provoke part of the film’s main problem. Unlike the rhythm heard from Charles’ music, Hackford wrestles unsuccessfully in his attempts to generate and maintain a rhythm on-screen. From the get-go proceedings are frantically hurrying forward, making it difficult to catch a breath never mind work out where and when we are. One moment a young Ray Robinson is shown as he grows up, the next he is moving away to school and then before you know it Ray Charles is belting out soulful music to the needy masses. The film is long — overly long at two and a half hours — and by the time the first sixty minutes are up, the audience has seen just about everything there is to see… so we see it all again. Charles develops a drug habit, he plays a gig, he records a song, he takes some more drugs, he buys a house, another gig, recording studio, perhaps the odd forced flashback for narrative continuity, and so on. The film begins to drag, which is a shame considering its subject matter defined entirely the opposite: pizazz and meaning.
Another obstacle in the film’s way is its over-wrought lightheartedness. Besides the death of Ray’s brother (the resonance of which gets lost amongst the rapid progression of proceedings), there is too much feel-goodness going on. Of course, the underlying message that Ray’s blindness should not hamper him, nor should it make us feel sorry him, is a wholly positive one and should be placed on a pedestal for the viewer to see and hopefully learn from. His wife Bea (Kerry Washington) enforces this notion of positivity: “How can I pity someone I admire?”
That being said, the life lived by Charles was without doubt a tumultuous one, one which incorporated extensive drug use and adultery, and these issues are sidelined to an extent in favour of jovial music and exuberance. Often arguments end in laughter when they need not. Perhaps this genuinely was part of the man’s all-round demeanour — his music certainly alludes to joyfulness. However, creative license appears to be prevalent as intentions to make Charles look like a bad guy are non-existent. Again, considering its enormous run-time, delving into the depths of some of the more unattractive issues in Charles’ existence would’ve benefited the film — when a smidgen of Ray’s post-addictive exterior is displayed it is tough to watch and this is more of what the film needs in order to really tell his story. Charles does not need to look like a bad guy — by all accounts he wasn’t one — but rather a good guy who done a few pretty bad things.
On the plus side, Jamie Foxx knocks the proverbial ball out the park and then some in his performance as the soul singer. In a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Foxx truly brings Ray Charles to life on screen. The key to his successful embodiment is just that: an outstanding use of body movement and facial expressions. Unable to deliver the goods through his eyes, which often provide the backbone to showing emotion, Foxx incorporates all of Charles’ movements and intricacies by way of a rasping shriek or emblazoned smile. It is evident that Foxx has worked hard to achieve what he does, and his award-winning achievements are magnetic.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who was nominated for an Academy Award in recognition of his work on The Pianist, and maybe his offerings in Ray should have earned him a second nomination. Alongside Foxx’s charismatic performance and a collection of delightful music, Edelman’s expert, scene-setting shoots provide Ray with all of its energy and charm, in spite of the dreary screenplay. Regardless of how repetitive it might get, or any imagination-scarcity it might suffer, you cannot help but smile when Ray Charles learns how to play “Mess Around” on the piano.
Ray is not a bad film by any means; it provides the vehicle for an incredible embodiment of one of the most influential men in music history courtesy of Jamie Foxx, and also accommodates a number of grin-inducing moments alongside an exclusively feel-good message. The film is let down, however, by a lack of creativity in the narrative department, turning the story of an incredible man’s inspiring journey into a bouncy-castle of repetition before long.
By the end, or even the middle, it sort made me just want to go and watch Walk the Line again.