Ray
Director: Taylor Hackford. Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Sharon Warren, Clifton Powell, C.J. Sanders, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff, Aunjanue Ellis, Bokeem Woodbine, Harry J. Lennix, Larenz Tate, Denise Dowse, Warwick Davis, Terrence Dashon Howard, Kurt Fuller, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Wendell Pierce, Chris Thomas King, Robert Wisdom, David Krumholtz, Patrick Bauchau. Screenplay: James L. White (based on a story by James L. White and Taylor Hackford).

For Michael Rubin, who keeps coming back.

Taylor Hackford's film Ray is enraptured with its subject, and that's a start, but I'm not sure it's enraptured in the right way. Beyond its expected and wholly understandable affinity for the sublime music of Ray Charles, this detail-driven and almost anecdotal film is doggedly interested in his physical presence, speech cadences, industrial savvy, personal obstacles, libidinal escapades, political stances, and ongoing cultural relevance. That such an ingenious entertainer and sturdy soul should have emerged from such inauspicious beginnings is another constant source of fascination for the filmmakers. The movie radiates further admiration for how quickly Ray learned the ropes of the fickle and demanding "chitlin' circuit" of whistle-stop jazz joints, much less the mercenary and profit-driven enterprise of label-sponsored pop music. Hackford's respect for Ray's virtuosity is mimicked, too, in how generously he dotes on Jamie Foxx's own carefully constructed and eminently respectful performance, a studied piece of acting that preserves a moment-to-moment energy amidst all the obvious and scrupulous attention to small details. Doesn't this sound like a lovely film?

In long stretches, it is. Foxx is an able shepherd through Charles' life, even if the performance doesn't afford so many creative and idiosyncratic touches as the same actor achieved in this past summer's Collateral. A bevy of African-American character actors make the supporting cast a consistent delight, especially since so few of these figures are required to ingratiate themselves in any obvious way. Thomas Jefferson Byrd has a great face for acting, and he's a pleasure to regard even in a smallish, largely silent part as one of Ray's early touring companions. A trio of women who have nurtured interesting careers in mostly black-themed Hollywood movies, and who will hopefully survive Hollywood's taste for squandering black talent, are all showcased to good effect here: Kerry Washington (Save the Last Dance) as Ray's churchy but patient wife Della Bea, Aunjanue Ellis (Brother to Brother) as a saucy vocal accompanist with designs on Ray, and the always delightful Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as Ellis' replacement in la ronde of adulterous misadventure. She and Foxx account for the movie's most emotive scenes, and they play 'em big without overplaying. Despite the fact that neither actor's voice is a convincing match with the sing-along vocal tracks, they turn the first rendition of Charles' timeless "Hit the Road, Jack" into a punchy and funny/scary confrontation. Meanwhile, the film does a good job sketching the local milieus, smoky interiors, and cross-country rambles where its story is set, and the odd loneliness of public adoration is amply conveyed. Besides which, it's a hell of a good story. And it's got a hell of a soundtrack.

So why, despite all these modest and occasionally marvelous pleasures, is Ray such a neutral experience? One reason is the catch-22 of the film's emotional integrity: while the performances are all nicely unsentimental, their refusal of the maudlin perhaps goes too far. We often feel peculiarly estranged from what we're watching, pleased that the movie isn't telling us how to feel, but curious about whether we should at least be feeling something. Hackford winds up with a movie that's actually a little too cold, too impersonal, and surprisingly often, too difficult to like, problems that gnaw in a smaller way at Foxx's own performance. Despite his generally affable demeanor throughout, evidence of Charles' narcissism, willful na´veté, and outright hedonism builds and builds. At a certain point, we can't pretend not to notice, and the film stops giving us much of a reason to excuse it all. We don't spend enough time with his various paramours, stewards, and colleagues for us to really absorb their points of view—the movie is as Ray-centric as the title implies—and yet the character as played and as written is better at evoking sympathy than empathy, better at congratulating its audience for what we already admire in Ray Charles than at expanding our sense of his humanity. Hackford and Foxx are barely interested in convincing us that Ray was a very nice person, or even an incredibly self-aware one. That should be to Ray's credit, given the assiduous glamorizing of so many biopics, but the glassy unknowability that encases Ray at all times makes him an object of contemplation rather than a figure we genuinely come to know. As technically proficient an impersonator as Foxx proves himself to be, he doesn't have quite the breathing vitality on screen or the emotional resources as a performer to make Ray's aloofness seem interesting in itself. (It doesn't help, of course, that we necessarily can't see all of Foxx's face, where he does some of his best, most richly internal acting in Collateral.)

Formal verve or sheer technical prowess would be the movie's best options for surviving its central failure (or else its refusal) to animate the human drama that presumably lies beneath all the symptomatic behavior—the loves and betrayals, the hirings and firings of professional accomplices (like Atlantic Records' legendary guru Ahmet Ertegun), the nimble glides across prefered musical genres. Ray isn't technically incompetent, but the choices it makes don't always work. Pawel Edelman, who lit Polanski's The Pianist with such sad elegance, overdoes some of the neons and California pastels here. He's on such a quest for strong colors in a number of his lighting designs that the humble but serviceable production design comes across more unevenly than it should. The most effective visual sequences in the movie are often the most subdued, as when Ray is recording in his studio, negotiating his contracts, or sitting around lost in thoughtful and/or narcotic reverie. The gray, low-contrast lighting of these scenes matches both the thick air of the jazz clubs where Charles got his start as well as the movie's basic proclivity for leaving Ray Charles half in shadow.

By contrast, though, the worst sequences in Ray on every possible level are the flashback interludes in Ray's impoverished home community in northern Florida, which are both visually and psychologically garish. Employing a Technicolor palette straight out of Song of the South, these passages are written even worse than they are photographed. No sooner, for instance, has lil' Ray gotten the first wisp of offhand instruction from the local piano aficionado (a seemingly ostracized figure, though we don't explore just why) than the film asks us to take for granted, against all environmental likelihood, his full and wizardly skills as an adult. Still worse is the psychological import ascribed to these sequences, dually grounded as they are in the tough love of Ray's mother (Sharon Warren) and in the traumatic death of his young brother George, whose accidental drowning in a laundry basin is unpersuasively staged and then bathetically reinvoked throughout the film. I assumed that we would eventually learn that the guilt-wracked Ray didn't rush to his young brother's rescue because he couldn't see that he was drowning; as an introduction to the boy's undiagnosed condition, the initial scene might have worked, and its serial repetitions might have been forgiven. But Hackford lets this incident usurp an absurd amount of screen time as a kind of psychological gestalt, a one-stop explanation for all of Ray's future peccadilloes and weaknesses—even though "explain" is much too strong a word for the way Hackford allows this footage to languish on screen, as though it explains itself. He isn't even above a Gothic device of repeated hallucinations that are ill-suited to the general tone and approach of Ray, which further betrays Hackford's perverse tendency to call the most attention to what works the least well in his own movie. Meanwhile, the brute fact of the Charles' abject poverty, which would seem a fuller and sturdier foundation for Ray's spiritual and material longings, winds up getting short-shrifted to a single day's event that, however horrific, simply doesn't withstand the invited scrutiny.

Clocking in at a rather undisciplined 152 minutes, Ray doesn't get better or worse as it goes along; at all moments, it is a blend of the workmanlike with the unresolved, the piquant and the tendentious, the stuff that do right and the stuff that do wrong. Given the constant paucity of good biographies, good musicals, and good African-American stories out of Hollywood, to say nothing of Charles' own recent death, it's no wonder, at least in the abstract, why Ray has engendered such good will among audiences. Universal is also marketing the picture quite well, and as even a casual student of awards-bait studio moviemaking must realize, bourgeois audiences are more than capable of embracing the film they are told they're getting rather than attending to the actual film that's been made. The truth remains that Ray is a mediocre movie on a great subject, a film that should be easier to like than it is, and one that remains hamstrung between a refusal of easy sympathy and an insistence on the most mawkishly vague psychological backstories. It isn't a patch, for example, on the exemplary Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do with It, which nimbly navigated Tina's unconscionable abuse with her own self-blaming complicity in that abuse, and whose dynamic lead performances kept verisimilitude and emotional expressiveness in such memorably exquisite balance. That film is one you can love, even while you learn from it, love looking at it, and love listening to it. Ray is a much more mixed affair. Either Hackford wants us to understand Ray Charles or he doesn't; either the movie cares that we excuse Ray's many and dwelled-upon shortcomings or it doesn't. The structurally abrupt prologue, which skips over as much good material as it introduces, implies that Ray really does want our affection, but at that late hour, our affection isn't nearly as forthcoming as it might once have been. None of the film's ambivalences are resolved, and so Ray remains a weirdly indifferent experience, deifying a man whom the filmmakers themselves are more impressed by than truly enamored of. C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Taylor Hackford
Best Actor: Jamie Foxx
Best Costume Design: Sharen Davis
Best Film Editing: Paul Hirsch
Best Sound: Scott Millan, Greg Orloff, Bob Beemer, and Steve Cantamessa

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Jamie Foxx

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actor (Foxx)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Picture; Best Actor (De Niro)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Foxx)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Actor (Foxx); Best Supporting Actress (Warren; tie)
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Foxx)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actor (Foxx); Best Sound
Satellite Awards: Best Actor, Musical/Comedy (Foxx); Best Supporting Actress, Musical/Comedy (King); Best Original Screenplay

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