Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Now Playing: Ray

Ray is one of those films where the central performance is the reason you see the movie. End of discussion. Jamie Foxx deserved every accolade thrown his way during awards season because he doesn't mimic Ray Charles Robinson. He literally becomes him, and that's the caliber of acting which elevates a solid biopic to the level of greatness.

It's a shame that Ray remains a thoroughly average and overlong, though entertaining, film about a music legend.

I blame director Taylor Hackford, to be honest. The film jumps back and forth between Ray's present day and his early years as a kid throughout the entire run of the film. There are heartbreaking moments of sadness and joy in the flashbacks, but we get the point early enough to where most of the rest are extraneous. Yes, Ray's mother was tough on him regarding his blindness but she was right. With a little tough love, Ray proved himself stronger than either he or his mother thought he was. The way his hearing compensated for his blindness borders on mythic in the film, but the movie gets enough of the small details right to allow for some "fudging."

The thing that bothers me about modern biopics is how they try to cover too much ground when they should have kept things more focused. The key is finding a singular event, even if it spans a few years, that defined a person. Patton was brilliant in this regard because it focused specifically on General George S. Patton's involvement in World War II. That film is the benchmark against which all other biopics should be measured, in my opinion, because it gets everything right and doesn't stretch itself thin by turning itself into a highlight reel.

Jamie Foxx is actually so good as Ray that he forces everyone around him to bring their A-Game. For example, Regina King delivers a career-best performance as one of Ray's many flames and when they square off in Ray's hotel room (the result of which is the song "Hit the Road Jack") the energy just explodes off the screen. Far too frequently King relies on the "louder is better" approach to acting, but here she's nuanced, vibrant, and passionate without being overbearing.

Oh yeah, the soundtrack is amazing. The aforementioned duet of "Hit the Road Jack" goes from the hotel room to the ballroom and the performance is staggering. I read a perfect description of the entertainment industry somewhere that if a performer of any type was lucky then he/she would eventually conquer their personal demons, but if we were lucky as an audience they wouldn't. Ray's great demons consumed him for years, and the result was the sort of music that will be held as great art 200 years from now. Unfortunately, the movie frequently revels in Ray's personal demons to the point where the audience is bludgeoned over the head with "heroin bad! lost little brother bad!" The film ends on a true high note though when we finally glimpse Ray's eyes (in a dream, mind you) and despite his handicap he finally learns how to see with his mother's eyes. It's a terrific moment in an otherwise average movie anchored by a star-making performance from Jamie Foxx.

I'll agree this is a fairly schizophrenic review, but watching a film that leaps all over the place and changes tone faster than Ray Charles can play the piano will do that to a person. It remains something worth seeing if only for the soundtrack and Foxx's performance, but it falls short of being a great biopic of a modern legend.

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