2004Director: Taylor Hackford
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Regina King
he easiest way to score an Oscar nomination is by portraying someone who is mentally impaired. The second-easiest way is to star in a semi-biographical film, a thinly veiled vanity project that generally is of more service to an actor than to his or her subject.
Such is the case with Ray, the Ray Charles biopic, which will get Jamie Foxx nominated for a truckload of awards he certainly deserves. Foxx is so invested in his portrayal of Charles, so immersed in the mythic persona, that in fleeting moments we forget we’re watching an actor. That’s as great a feat as any performer can hope to accomplish, but Foxx, however brilliant he is, is unable to transcend the proficient, but unremarkable, film that surrounds him.
"Um, no, I really don't think it would be a good idea to let you drive..."
This is less a criticism of Ray specifically than of an entertaining but largely inconsequential genre. Without exception, biopics are memorable for their lead performances and little else. I know Lou Diamond Phillips was pretty good as Richie Valens in La Bamba, but I’ll be damned if I remember anything about the movie. And as good as Oliver Stone’s The Doors is, I recall little about it other than Val Kilmer’s performance. Well, give or take a naked Indian.
That’s because the format panders to the VH1 philosophy that every life story can fit squarely into a designated amount of time, complete with a neatly packaged rise from obscurity, years of innovation and hits, a fall from popularity, a descent into narcotics, yet another rise against drug addiction/racism/disability and a triumphant conclusion. Include obligatory in-studio shots of record producers and engineers looking at each other excitedly, as if to say, “I’ll be damned, we’ve got a hit!” Repeat as time allows.
Since the amazing story of Ray Charles features the conquering of much adversity — blindness, poverty, racism, heroin use, personal demons, infidelity, etc. — Ray is at least a half-hour too long and lacks focus, unable to devote adequate time to each challenge and likewise unable to decide which one deserves the most attention. To compensate, director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter James L. White concentrate on a devastating childhood event, the drowning of Ray’s younger brother George, a tragedy Ray probably couldn’t have prevented, but is, according to the film, somehow at the root of every obstacle he must face.
"You got the right one, baby, un-hunh..."
It makes for a compelling narrative, but it robs Charles of much of his complexity, and it’s simply not accurate. I won’t break it all down here, but read the piece Charles biographer David Fritz recently wrote for Slate on the film’s distortion of reality.
At least no one can question the integrity of the music. The songs performed in Ray are revelatory, and provide a terrific overview for a generation that, outside the context of, say, a Diet Pepsi commercial, probably doesn’t sufficiently appreciate Charles’ contributions to popular music. Early on, these musical sequences provide a terrific structural backbone, particularly when Charles controversially combines gospel music with sexual lyrics, doing some thoroughly righteous devil’s work. But ultimately these scenes can’t elevate Ray past the limitations of genre.
Since Charles was closely involved with Ray until his death this summer, it’s easy to overlook many of the film’s weaknesses and just appreciate an icon finally getting some well-deserved recognition. And maybe that’s the lesson: Don’t go into a biopic looking to have your mind blown. But as guilt-free holiday entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse than Ray.
By: Troy Reimink
Published on: 2004-11-12