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Soul on Celluloid

by Craig Froehlich
 
 
 

"Ray"
Universal Pictures
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Written by Taylor Hackford and James L. White
Starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis, Sharon Warren, C.J. Sanders, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff, Larenz Tate and Terrence Dashon Howard
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

Finding out that Hollywood decided to put the life of music legend Ray Charles onto celluloid is a bit like hearing that a studio bought the rights to your favorite book. The story is incredible, the characters are inspired, and every time you revisit it, you notice something new. But really, how can a movie do the story justice? More importantly, how are they going to screw it up?

“Ray,” starring Jamie Foxx as the icon, allays most of those fears. Foxx demonstrates that all it takes to overcome a film’s shortcomings is a career-making acting performance, a better-than-fiction life story and a soundtrack selected from an enviable catalog of timeless music. “Ray” opens to the musician’s agile hands gliding across a piano, the black and white keys reflected in the wobbly lenses of his trademark sunglasses as the pounding, intricate rhythm of “What’d I Say” drifts effortlessly from the piano and its pianist. This powerful introduction represents the strengths of the film.

Biographical films tend to take for granted that the audience will buy the legendary status so freely bestowed on the main character. With Ray Charles, it’s hard to imagine arguing against such a presumption of greatness. This is one remarkable guy. Shouldered with enough burden to make most of us give up within five minutes and spend the rest of a lifetime bitching about it, Charles relentlessly plays and wails his way into pop music history.

Before directing “Ray,” Taylor Hackford produced another trek into the land of the rock-and-roll biopic. The career of Ritchie Valens, the subject of 1987’s “La Bamba,” spanned a fraction of Charles’ half-century stint as a groundbreaking and beloved performer. With the tough childhood, the exhilarating rise to stardom, the hard price of fame, the eventual comeuppance and ultimate redemption, it’s hard not to see some of the same formulaic shortcomings in the telling of both stories. “La Bamba” attempt to catapult Valens beyond his status as a footnote in the life and death of Buddy Holly begged for a touch of creative myth-making. That film reeked of artistic license as it attempted to reintroduce filmgoers to the Latin rocker. The most dramatic moment in the life of Valens was his untimely death in a plane crash, and the film constantly reminded the audience by hinting at Valens’s precognition of the event in flashes of a disintegrating aircraft.

Valens was no Ray Charles and “Ray” is no “La Bamba,” but Hackford turns to similar visual devices to show Charles being perpetually haunted by his tragic childhood. Fatherless and dirt-poor in the segregated South, he watched his beloved kid brother drown in a washtub only to be stricken blind in short order himself. As the film tells it, the tragic memories resurface in hallucinatory flashes of puddles, dripping water and tiny, dead hands. Throughout it all, the image of his long-dead mother lectures him from beyond, “You may be blind, but you ain't stupid. Don't let anyone make you a cripple." Although a wee on the hokey side, the flashbacks are used sparingly enough to convey, but not quite annoy.

Of course, “Ray” could hardly be a conventional rock biopic. The hardly conventional singer eluded and personally disavowed attempts to label his style of song. Charles’ music was marginally rock and roll, scarcely mere R&B and, perhaps, prototypically soul music. The movie tries its best to chronicle his evolution from a house musician doing Nat King Cole covers to a rising star inventing his own genre of music. Missing is the childhood spent learning the craft he later mastered. A brief scene shows a young Charles taking his first pokes at the keys of a rickety piano, only to resurface decades later already fluent in the instrument. Time constraints prevent more than hints at Charles’s many influences. The strong impact of folk and blues music on Charles can only be assumed. The film never touches the subject. An irate lady in her Sunday’s best haranguing the singer for using the Lord’s music to sing about sex alludes to his use of Gospel Music’s chord changes, wails, and calls and responses. His early nightclub gigs highlight the Jazz that helped put food on the table.

He wows a room of rednecks with his aptitude for Country music. He even weathers the nagging of a backup singer by playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The poignant scene seems to spiritually link the two troubled artists. Brooding genius and psychological turmoil seem eternally partnered and Charles was no different. At first, the film hides his vices as well as the singer did from the public. When he opens up a shaving kit to full of dope, it evoked surprised and disappointed gasps from the audience at a promotional screening. The man who overcame obstacle after obstacle spent his most prolific years hooked on heroin.

In fact, the decision to wrap up the film soon after Charles undergoes a frenetic detox from junk in a scene reminiscent of an old Nine-Inch Nails video begs the question, “Did the man do his best work when he was using drugs?” Well, if it makes you feel any better, after he cast heroin aside and the hit records seemingly petered out, Charles reportedly took to booze and grass. So it didn’t help. Womanizing placed a close second to heroin. He kept the virtuous mother of his children safe at home, while running through a procession of club girls and backup singers. Actually, the film version is tamer than real life. While the movie depicts less than a handful of marital infidelities and one illegitimate baby, the real-life Ray sired twelve children between seven different women and three marriages.

There’s a fine line between a film biography and a televised movie of the week—you can either wind up with “Patton” or the “The Jessica Lynch Story.” The substance of Ray Charles alone helps keep “Ray” above the fray. At times, especially near the end, the film flirts with insulin-taxing sappiness. Some scenes, such as the off-the-cuff composition of “What’d I Say,” feel a bit contrived. On the other hand, one of the singer’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement seems refreshingly understated as he decides at the last minute to junk Jim Crow and re-board his bus rather than play a segregated venue. The music and the leading actor ultimately keep the film from self-destructing.

Certain to receive the most acclaim, Foxx’s earnest and, at times, incredible performance drives the film through its occasional lulls. He eclipses the supporting cast despite its own share of worthy performances. Any attempt to portray Charles, with his ever-present grin and quirky mannerisms could easily devolve into mimicry. Foxx landed more than just a juicy role, and he recognizes it. His respect for the enigmatic and venerable Charles seems apparent and was no doubt strengthened when aesthetic needs forced Foxx to navigate the role with his eyes sealed shut. Besides the look, Foxx nailed the delivery. He mastered the hurried banter, the subtle wisecracks and subdued accent.

Trite as it sounds, Foxx makes the audience forget that they’re watching an actor and not Charles himself. Some critics began handing Foxx the Oscar a week ago. It’s too early to start doling out awards, but he has clearly come a long way since “Booty Call.” The best argument for Foxx to receive the honor is to get the reaction shot from fellow “In Living Color” alum, Jim Carrey. He could hardly hide his disgust after not being nominated for his overrated performance in the mediocre “Man in the Moon.” Maybe you shouldn’t have turned down “Shaq’s All Star Comedy Roast 2.” Jamie didn’t.

craig@red-mag.com

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