Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Review: "Ray" (2004)

A hagiography, which is the story of someone's life told in only glowing terms, simply does not make for good drama. Perhaps my favorite biographical film, 'Malcolm X", encountered some trouble while filming. Malcolm's family protested Spike Lee's plan to show the slain Muslim leader's younger days as a gangster and drug addict. Instead of tarnishing his image, the inclusion of this material ended up making the man more real and admirable for it. Of course, these scenes only occur in the first half, after which he was a clean and reverent Muslim. With other famous men, however, such dark aspects accompany them throughout their professional lives.

"Ray" is the story of Ray Charles, a man born into poverty in rural Florida and suffered two tragedies in quick succession: The accidental death of his little brother and the loss of his sight. His stern but loving mother taught him how to survive in a world without pity, which gave him the confidence to strike out on his own and try to make a living as a musician. His rise to fame is steady and impressive as he meets a variety of good and bad characters along the way. It is his two weaknesses of heroin and women, however, that threaten to strike him down if he doesn't wise up.

The first surprising thing about this film is how the standard blind shticks do not even seem to occur to the filmmakers. By the time Ray leaves home, he is so sure of his movement that blindness isn't even an issue anymore. But he is nonetheless ostracized by members of the band he joins up with and, in an action to prove his manhood, tells them he wants to try the heroin their using. This small moment, where he trades one disability for another, provides the theme that dominates the film all the way to the end.

The drug abuse is interesting in that it is not addressed and dealt with quickly, as with other films. It lingers and becomes essential to Ray's day-to-day living. Repeatedly, he comes to a crucial and deciding moment when he should give it up. These moments pass and Ray continues with his work without mention of his habit, only for it to emerge again twenty minutes later. In this way, we get a real feel of how deep the addiction went and thus makes the scenes of his withdrawal all the more painful.

In addiction to the drug abuse, of course, is the story of Ray Charles's music. And unlike other biographies of musicians, Ray Charles's story is about more than just one or two hit songs. His role as innovator is detailed through his efforts to combine Gospel with Soul, his use of full orchestras when he signed with ABC Paramount, and also his introduction of country music to his fans and, thus, a wider audience. And through the telling of all these steps along the way, we get many elongated music performances to enjoy. It also makes for a longer movie, which could have possibly been trimmed a bit more, but can be forgiven for its exuberance.

Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles. It's such a cliche, but it applies to this film in far more ways than other actors in other biographies. Foxx completely disappears behind those glasses. His body movements, contagious smile and unique pattern of speech completely convinces us that here stands the man that was Ray Charles. One glaring mistake made by this film is near the end when Ray has a dream sequence of being back in Florida. He takes off his glasses and discovers he's able to see again, and the audience is spellbound at the sight of...Jamie Foxx. It's quite jarring after two hours of being completely convinced that you were watching a young Ray Charles to see Foxx standing there, the spell broken.

The supporting players are a distinctly varied lot. The two men that recruit Ray for Atlantic Records are none other than Richard Schiff (Toby from "The West Wing", looking very odd without his beard) and Curtis Armstrong (Booger from the "Revenge of the Nerds" movies, also looking like a whole different person). The MC at the first club Ray plays is none other than dwarf actor Warwick Davis doing a brief role here in between gigs as Professor Flitwick in the "Harry Potter" movies. Finally, special mention should be given newcomer Sharon Warren, who plays Ray's determined mother Aretha in flashbacks. She gives an intensity to this pivotal role that stays with the viewer after they leave the theater.

There is one nagging loose end that is never resolved, and it does contain a minor spoiler. Early on, Ray becomes friends with Jeff Brown, the bus driver for his first band. The man is honest and trustworthy, so Ray recruits him to be his right hand man. Much further down the road, Ray recruits an announcer named Joe Adams to come on tour with him. Adams quickly muscles Brown out of the picture by convincing Ray that he's been pocketing Ray's money. There is an argument ending with Brown leaving Ray and telling him that his actions would cost him dearly one day. Was Brown really stealing the money? Did Adams set Brown up? We never find out, and we never see a consequence befall Ray as a result of his actions (such as Adams eventually betraying Charles). Either the already long movie was trimmed of a scene that answered these questions, or the filmmakers simply decided to make the decision to leave it hanging. In either case, it was a bad call as the question is something that deserves closure.

Ray actually had the script for this film translated into Braille so that he may read it, and he eventually gave this warts-and-all portrait his approval. We should be thankful he did, and it is emblematic of a man who was told repeatedly in his early career to not sound like other people but instead use his own real voice and sound. And when it comes to the story of his life, only his own real story will do.

Eight out of Ten

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