NOTE: This review regards the extended version, which is nearly three hours long, but well worth the time if you truly care about the subject matter.
Bottom Line: A moving biography that flies by in three hours.
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Aunjanue Ellis, Bokeem Woodbine, C.J. Sanders, Clifton Powell, Curtis Armstrong, Harry Lennix, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Sharon Warren
It’s weird. I always get the most pleasurable feelings listening to music produced by drug addicted performers. Don’t ask me why: I haven’t quite found an established reason for this idiosyncracy. Perhaps it’s because the quality of the music, the tone, and the mood seem to strike a deep chord inside my soul. Again, that’s just an assumption, so I may be wrong and it may have something to do with me being absolutely psychotic. Of all these “trippy” singers–save for the Beatles and Nirvana–Ray Charles is the one whose work I cherish the most. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t be saying that statement so firmly before watching Jamie Foxx perform fabulously against a pitch-perfect screenplay in RAY.
One of my strongest philosophies, when it comes to judging movies, is that actors shouldn’t sing and singers should not act. I feel that when this isn’t followed, not only do we begin to recognize singers from their stance in pop culture, we also tend to grow bored by their weak performances. Jamie Foxx in the titular role is a crucial exception to this standard. Not only does he deliver a great performance as Ray, he appears to become the character. It’s not because Ray Charles was a singer, just like Jamie Foxx. There is nothing that simplistic about a character as dark and complex as Ray. He was, in fact, a singer, but he was also a husband, a friend, a father, a blind man, and a heroin addict. You could say that awarding the Oscar for Best Actor to Jamie Foxx for his performance was just another blip in a string of awards given for performing as the disabled (i.e. Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN, Tom Hanks in FORREST GUMP, Colin Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH), but the award barely begins to give back for how well Foxx could dissolve himself into so much of a character for nearly three hours.
Ever since his childhood, Ray Robinson (publicized as Ray Charles, of course, to avoid confusion with Sugar Ray Robinson) lived a tough life. He was only a mere child when he witnessed his brother drown in a bathtub, and for his whole life, he carried with him the grief of knowing he could have saved his brother. Less than a year later, Ray began suffering from blindness and was forced to find his way around using his other four senses, mainly his sense of touch. Early on in his adulthood, he was discovered to excel at both voice and the piano. His career rose exponentially, despite some controversy over him supposedly transforming gospel music used to praised the Lord into sacrilegious songs with sexual subtexts, with hits such as “I Got a Woman”, “Hit the Road”, and “Georgia on My Mind”–many of his songs we recognize today very well and don’t even associate with him–but at the same time his outside life began to fall. Ray was dealing with segregation and drug addiction, a factor that basically collapsed the rest of his personal life, and would have destroyed his career quickly, had he not produced such hits to keep it alive.
There are some discrepancies between the film interpretation RAY and the actual events, so I’ve heard, but I’d say these changes were made for the benefit of producing a story that flows. The film is a heavy character study, and it seems the extended version grants it even more depth, with over twenty-five extra minutes of flashbacks and musical footage that did not appear in the theatrical cut. It’s not a necessary edit to the film, but I’d recommend it. The story here, extended or not, is about as fluent as most great stories, something difficult for a biographical film to achieve. This isn’t THE IRON LADY. Ray’s heroin addiction isn’t presented for half the film, just as dementia was in that more recent film. Writers Taylor Hackford and James L. White want to make it very clear that there were many equally problematic situations that occurred during the performer’s lifetime, spreading them out and transitioning between them evenly. It’s a shame Ray Charles himself passed away only a few months before his biographical picture was released. For anyone who appreciates soul music–or at least its king–as much as I do, the film is essential. It isn’t perfect, nor is it set up any different than the ideal biopic, but it’s otherwise stunning.