From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Review: Ray (2004) Director - Taylor Hackford; Starring - Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis; Screenplay - James L. White, from a story by Taylor Hackford and James L. White; rated PG13 for sexuality, language, and depictions of drug use; trailer here.

I cried a little the day Ray Charles passed.

I wasn't a huge follower of Charles. I knew some of his music, though I learned more in the time after he'd passed than I ever knew in the years prior. I just had an understanding of him as a significant musical figure and contributor to what helped to shape American culture. I knew the world would be a far lesser place without him in it.

I'd seen the trailer for the movie Ray a month after he passed, on the front end of The Bourne Supremacy. I was amazed by what little I saw of Jamie Foxx in that brief trailer and how much it seemed like he had a grasp on who Charles was. Now, having finally seen the movie, I can say that Foxx did much more than just get a grasp on who Charles was. He raises his performance above mere impression to a level well above the material surrounding him.

Ray is the story of Charles' life. Though it does spend a little bit of time on his childhood in the Florida panhandle, the story focuses mostly on his adult life and the trials and tribulations Charles faced on the road to stardom. Starting with his debut on the music scene in Seattle as a 19 year old jazz and blues pianist and culminating with Charles' receipt of an award from the Georgia state legislature naming his song "Georgia On My Mind" as the official state song, director Taylor Hackford paints Charles as a showman with a troubled past and a taste for experiences in his life that would transcend the sensory deprivation from the loss of his sight.

Foxx studied Charles for a few weeks before striking out on his own, feeling that a 73 year old Charles couldn't help him get a feel for how to play the 19 year old Charles. Whatever sources Foxx relied on to help him get a feel for the character, they worked wonders. Foxx is a real discovery in his performance and may have made his mark as one of the most talented actors working today without question. In his acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar he won for this film, Foxx told a story of meeting Sidney Poitier for the first time (and doing a spot on impersonation in the bargain). I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Foxx could be the greatest African American actor since Poitier, and one of the most gifted in the last 20 years, maybe longer.

This proves to be a saving grace for the rest of the film, because everything else about this movie is somewhat lackluster. It has a feel like a mediocre TV movie. One wonders just how poor this film would have been had Foxx not contributed his performance to it.

Part of the weakness of the film lies in the script. Foxx's performance really taps into the more sensuous aspects of Charles' personality. It is those aspects that likely contributed to Charles' womanizing as well as his serious addiction to heroin. By mining this part of Charles' personality, Foxx adds a level of sexuality I had never heard in Charles' music before. "Hit the Road, Jack" is a song about a jilted lover, but it's when you really see Charles' passion laid bare that I feel the venom that lies beneath some of the lyrics.

Hackford undermines this in the script by breaking the story up in an episodic fashion, reducing Charles' life to a series of snippets that feel just a wee bit to coincidental to feel completely legitimate for me. The segment in which Charles comes to record "Mess Around" felt almost hammy to me, a fact that probably wasn't helped much by the casting of Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun, the man who first signed Charles with Atlantic Records, and producer on many of Charles' early albums. Maybe it's just me, but I can't see Ray Charles getting advice on how to break out musically from Booger of Revenge of the Nerds fame.

The other supporting roles fall into the same sort of trap. Larenz Tate is a good actor, and casting him as the young Quincy Jones could hold a lot of potential. Yet Jones barely makes any appearances in the movie, and none of any real note. Kerry Washington's role as Della Bea Robinson, the woman who would become Mrs. Ray Charles, is a cookie cutter stand by your man type and not much else. There's a real potential to showcase her as someone who who was a long suffering but proud woman. Formulaic maybe, but it would have held more potential than the character that's given to us instead.

Hackford secured the rights to do Charles' life on film in 1987, but was unable to find a studio to produce the movie. He wound up doing it independently, with Universal stepping in to distribute only after the film was completed. Universal stepped up because one of the executives at the studio used to hitchhike to see Charles' concerts when he was younger.

I think the film world is better for it simply because of the exposure it gives Foxx as an actor. The movie itself hardly merited consideration as one of the five best of 2004, but as I noted in my Oscar wrap up, considering the year in film was hardly distinctive it probably isn't surprising that a mediocre film got elevated in consideration. Foxx's performance is that good. Hopefully it's a sign of many great things to come for him.