January 18, 2005

The Transplendent Ray

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor


One of the reasons I avoided Ray when it opened was the trailer that limited itself to only showcasing Jamie Foxx's impersonation of Ray Charles. Not being particularly interested in Ray Charles as a film subject, I just wasn't pulled in.

Between Ray's first and second run, I had time to let the trailer dissolve from my brain and began to think about the film objectively. Given the critical praise, I grew intrigued, paid my four dollars and waited with no expectations.

What I saw transcended normal biopic limitations. Ray is not a film about a legend sailing smoothly through life and career. It concerns a man who pursued his passion for music brilliantly, and yet struggled with the most personal aspects of his life. Ray is not a self-congratulating film about a pop-culture icon, but a work of art by a consummate filmmaker.

Ray is anything but a showcase for Charles' music. If anything, the film lacks enough of the musical inspirations and innovations that made Charles famous. Director Taylor Hackford (Devil's Advocate, Proof of Life) and writer James L. White are instead committed to telling a story of brilliance and the darkness that walked beside it. In achieving this, they've given us a biography that hides nothing of the man behind the glasses.

Jamie Foxx has probably never played a more recognizable role with his talent for mimicry subsumed in the stark truth of his performance. With his crooked, toothy smile and the customary swaying of his entire upper torso, Foxx doesn't deal out caricature, but captures every detail and nuance of Ray Charles. Foxx simply disappears from the screen. Only Ray remains. Foxx was so committed to his performance he wore eye prosthetics that blinded him during the shoot. In addition, he actually plays all the songs featured in the film himself. Out of this comes Foxx's ability to evoke Charles' infectious spirit, rollicking talent, and boundless gift of reaching souls through his multitude of musical styles, and is just enough to counter Charles' stultifying, ego and addictions..

Foxx is matched by a cast equally capable and enjoyable. Curtis Armstrong caused me to do a double take as Ahmet Ertegun, an Atlantic Records producer and one of Ray Charles' friends. He is one of the film's more engaging characters, and I felt attracted to his genuine care for Charles as a member of the record company's family, his gentle encouragement of his enormous talent, and his magnanimousness in the face of losing Charles to a more lucrative record deal with another company.

Regina King and Aunjanue Ellis share Charles as jealous girlfriends and members of the Raylettes. They both provide convincing performances, though their material is a gold mine compared to Kerry Washington's Della Bea Charles, Ray's long-suffering wife. Washington digs deep to show us the heart of a person who loves Charles, not for his music or his talent or his money, but because of who he is to her. She beseeches Ray to open his heart to her, knowing that he is still entrapped in a self-made prison, knowing that he may never come around.

Also notable is Sharon Warren, in her debut role, as Ray's mother, who from the time he was born raised him with undying love and unremitting toughness. Her toughness is what teaches Charles how to hear the world when his eyes are gone. Warren conveys this simply and powerfully through sharp glances and longing looks at her son, knowing that his future will be a hard road if he does not take it in hand. Her performance is riveting, and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress should be in her future.

Despite the amazing performances, a few problems mar this otherwise fantastic picture. To most people, Ray Charles made music the way God made the world. His innovations in rock 'n' roll, gospel, and country/western were the turning point in musical history, yet they are glossed over in favor of the intensely charged behind-the-velvet-curtain story of Charles' drug addiction and his failures as a husband and a father.

While Charles' victory over years of heroin addiction is quite a story, its darkness fails to sustain what should have been a more evenhanded look at Charles -- as a performer, an artist, and a man fighting with his demons. White and Hackford attempt to tie Charles' drug addiction to his guilt over seeing his younger brother drown at age five and the torment of being blinded at age seven, but the connection is feeble and unconvincing. In addition the ending is abrupt and seems forced, a compromise perhaps in the face of studio pressure to keep the film under two and a half hours.

From early childhood to his first days on the road, to Seattle where he first made a name for himself and began a career that would eventually span nearly fifty years, Ray is intelligently told and marvelously portrayed. Despite its unevenness, it still manages to inspire and at the same time the tangle of life and work of an extraordinary artist and human being.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com Posted by Vanderleun at January 18, 2005 9:12 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

That's a gorgeous review and very much captures the essence of the film. Having seen it twice, now that my wife's in St. Louis for the week on business, I'll likely see it a third. It'll be our secret.

Posted by: greg at January 18, 2005 11:27 AM