erasing clouds

Ray Hits Notes Both Sharp and Flat

review by matthew webber

Give the statuette to Jamie Foxx already.

In a film that's more of an Oscar-season event than a story, Jamie Foxx is Ray. Let me rephrase that: Jamie Foxx is Ray. He looks like Ray (with the help of prosthetics), he sounds like Ray (with the help of some lip synching), and he even moves like the genius, Ray Charles (who, before his death, hung out with Foxx to help him learn the part).

Believe the hype of every other critic: Foxx gives the performance of his lifetime, far removed from the Booty Calls and Players Clubs of his past. His strong, subtle turn opposite Tom Cruise in this summer's Collateral merely hinted at the depths in which he can lose himself: anger, dependency, joie de vivre. It's not a stretch to say he becomes Ray Charles, and he instills this particular biographic picture with pathos, gravitas, and all other big words Latinate. As the titular character, Foxx must carry the picture, and he does so across his rippling shoulders. His performance is almost as breathtaking as the soundtrack of Charles' music. Yes, the film is Oscar bait, but Foxx deserves the marketing.

If Foxx, the former comedian, wants to be taken seriously as an actor, he will be, because there is very little funny about this serious, serious picture. Like many films released this time of year, this one follows the real-life chronology of a real-life legend with real-life tribulations and a triumph towards the end.

In Ray, director Taylor Hackford tries to illustrate that drugs and women were the sometimes literal background to Charles' music, and he paces the narrative so these two demons provide the conflict. For every musical high, there's a personal low, sometimes in the same song. But Ray is the most fun when the music provides the meaning. When Charles' jilted lover sings about the heartbreak Charles has given her, she can break your heart. It's the dialogue that sometimes seems expository.

Like most biopics, Ray is too long and not nearly long enough. Hackford has the nightmare job of condensing decades of a life into a two- to three-hour movie, which forces him to make the flashbacks of Charles' early life and the "Ray Charles went on to do…" subtitles about the end of his life do too much of the film's work. Years go by in a montage, or else they drag on in 15-minute acts. Each peak seems like a climax; each fall seems like an irresolvable nadir. You could say the same thing about most people's real lives, which is why there might not be a right way to tell a biopic. As Hackford breaks some rules of filmic narrative, he follows those of numerous other biopics - some of which won Oscars for their stars.

Ultimately, Ray is interesting because Ray is interesting. (You know: Poverty, blindness, resilience - all that.) The glorious music and the dynamic Jamie Foxx help redeem a troubled movie and a troubled man. Even if you don't leave the theater a Ray fan, there's no way you'll not be a Ray fan.

Issue 28, November 2004

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