Review: Ray

Posted by: Dean Kish  //  October 29, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Reviews

Did we really know the whole legend of the late great Ray Charles? If director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter James L. White have anything to say, we really didn't.

Proof of Life director Taylor Hackford's latest film Ray chronicles the trials, tribulations, and life-altering moments of the late entertainer. Jamie Foxx plays Ray Charles, who was able to overcome early childhood blindness, a life of poverty, and a heroin addiction to become one of the greatest forces in music the world has ever seen.

Ray is the perfect example of a "middle-of-the-road" biopic. You have great ones like Gandhi, The Buddy Holly Story, and of course Chaplin. Then you have middle-of-the-road ones like La Bamba, My Left Foot, and Michael Collins. Then there are disappointments like Ali, Prefontaine, Seven Years in Tibet, and Sylvia.

So what does constitute a great biography? Well first, there has to be an interesting subject. Then you have to decide, what kind of layers does the film want to show? Is the film a compliment or does it want to uncover all the demons?

Second, there has to be a great accomplishment in the subject's life that the audience can relate to. This second criteria is why Hollywood loves to make biopics on musicians. All the audience has to do is hear a song or a verse and then they know who the piece is about. When filmmakers lose the right to use the material produced by their subject, the film loses a lot of its impact. A perfect example of that was 2003's Sylvia.

The third and final piece to the biography puzzle is, how do you want to tell the story? Does the film show the subject's whole life or just an important portion?

When it comes to Ray, all the important parts are met, but there seems to be a lack in the presentation that makes the film lose its impact.

Still to this day, the closest you can get to a perfect film biography is the immortal Gandhi. Like the flawless performance by Ben Kingsley as the legendary pacifist leader, so is the amazing performance by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. Foxx is utterly flawless and it is truly an amazing performance.

But one great performance doesn't make a completely great film. This can be said about other biographies, including My Left Foot and Michael Collins. Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson do amazing jobs in their title roles, but the film around them is quite flawed. This also can also be said about Ray.

Other than the performance by Foxx as Ray Charles, there are amazing performances from co-stars Kerry Washington and newcomer Sharon Warren. Washington's steadfast portrayal of Ray Charles' devoted but suffering wife Della Bea is utterly magical, though a lot more subdued than Foxx's Charles. Sharon Warren plays the young single mother to Ray Charles and his younger brother George. Warren's performance is heartbreaking and wrought with the purest emotion I have seen on screen this year. I hope Oscar not only remembers Foxx but Warren as well in a supporting role.

I have always loved the music of Ray Charles and that element helped a lot of my enjoyment of a lot of the many concert-set pieces. But as the music brought out positive emotion, some of the scenes involving the entertainer and how he treated the people around him bugged me. I know a lot of the great artists have been flawed in their lives, but some of the scenes left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Hackford's direction is flamboyant and does harness a lot of the emotion of Charles. His no-holds-barred approach to telling the legend of Ray Charles doesn't deliver on the impact that it should. All these tragic things happened to the man, and Foxx's performance is flawless, but why don't we care at all about the man?

I liked a lot of Ray, but like a lot of "middle-of-the-road" biopics, the leading performance is probably all that will be remembered when the buzz goes away. (4 out of 5) So Says the Soothsayer.

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