Friday, October 29, 2004
Like Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix or Patsy Cline, Ray Charles was one of those rare performers who seemed to be universally liked and respected, regardless of one's musical preference.
The blind, black pianist was the first to combine R&B; and gospel into a powerhouse, radio-friendly style. And the husky voiced singer also found legions of fans within the country music world.
Everybody loves Ray.
Yet the impressive biopic "Ray" must be commended for not turning the film into a slobbering tribute or an inspirational picture about a blind man overcoming adversity. Writer-director Taylor Hackford pulls few punches in this unflinching and often unflattering depiction of Charles' life story.
While the Grammy winner is revealed to be a charming, shrewd, intelligent innovator, he is also portrayed as a greedy womanizer who for decades preferred heroin over friends and family ... but not necessarily over music.
Jamie Foxx gives the performance of the year as the late Charles. This is one of those rare biographical turns where the actor so completely immerses himself in the role that it ceases to be an impression and becomes more like a spiritual possession.
Although "Ray" jumps in and out of different periods (with actor C.J. Sanders playing the 7-year-old Charles), the movie begins from the time he left Florida at age 18 for the hopping Seattle scene of the late 1940s. It depicts how the gifted musician is first exploited by those trying to cash in on his prowess, until he takes matters into his own hands and lands a minor record deal. (He insists on being paid only with $1 bills so he won't be ripped off.)
As the man's success escalates throughout the 1950s and '60s, so does his dependence on heroin. The irony is that all his life he does everything to "not be a cripple," but his mounting drug use eventually turns him into one.
Hackford, who's guided actors to Oscars in the past (notably Louis Gossett Jr. in "An Officer and a Gentleman"), pulls some fine performances from his cast. Newcomer Sharon Warren makes an impressive film debut as the young Charles' working-class mother, particularly in rather heartrending scenes where she has to teach her son to be independent.
Regina King ("Jerry Maguire") is commanding as one of the backup singers/mistresses who predictably wants her affair to have a more permanent union. Also good is Curtis Armstrong as prim Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun, one of the men who recognized the scope of Charles' talent and allowed him to develop it. Hard to believe this is the same actor who played Booger in "Revenge of the Nerds."
Pacing is the main aspect that prevents the movie from equaling the heights reached by its hero. This picture feels long and could benefit from 15 or 20 minutes of tightening, especially during a third act that runs out of juice.
Jamie Foxx gives the performance of the year in this unflinching and often unflattering biopic of singer-pianist Ray Charles. The actor so completely immerses himself in the role that it ceases to be an impression and becomes more like a possession. Only some uneven pacing prevents the film from reaching higher notes.
Despite that padding, the ending appears rushed and lacks the emotional impact it should. This is because the story (co-written by James L. White) spends so much time setting up addiction and the toll it takes on the star's family as the main plot point, that the coda about his triumph over racism seems like a sidebar to the more substantial struggles in his life.
Thankfully, the genuinely rousing music numbers tend to tie the work together. Classic cuts such as "Mess Around," "I Got a Woman" and "What'd I Say" come across as fresh as the day they were tracked. The majority of the recreated numbers are pulled straight from Charles' classic recordings, although the suave Foxx (a Julliard-trained pianist) sings a couple tunes on his own.
While the look and feel of the film ring true, it ultimately relies on the strength of Foxx's performance to distinguish it from other "Behind the Music"-type endeavors.
"Ray" makes a convincing case that Foxx may have the same level of acting chops that Charles had on the microphone and keyboard.