In June, the world lost a musical legend with the passing of 73-year-old Ray Charles. But before his death, he was able to give his creative input and seal of approval to the biographical Ray, a film that's been more than 15 years in the making. This is pretty remarkable cinematic timing—his passing is still in the hearts of many, and now we have a fitting testimony to the man's life and 50-year musical legacy.
Charles isn't regarded so much as a songwriter as he was an innovator and a versatile performer. Here's a man who started his career as a jazz crooner, mimicking the likes of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. He then easily shifted into rhythm & blues, leading into the dawn of rock 'n' roll. Later on, he fused R&B with gospel, and then country after that, eventually embracing middle-of-the-road pop. Referred to as "The Genius of Soul," Charles was more than a cover artist or a mimic. He was a bridge, breaking down musical barriers and making whatever he sang his own.
But Charles' legacy runs deeper than music. His life tells the story of a man who overcame not only racial obstacles in the mid-twentieth century, but also physical obstacles, going blind from glaucoma by the age of seven. Charles was also a shrewd businessman, looking for opportunities to further his career to the next level. A stipulation to his 1959 record contract with ABC-Paramount allowed him to retain his own masters, a deal "better than Sinatra's" that allowed him unprecedented financial control, yet ironically the reason most of his albums remain out of print to this day. And Charles was also the first black artist to refuse to play racially segregated concerts in the South, a stance that led to him being banned from playing in the state of Georgia for many years.
Director Taylor Hackford brings the story to the screen, and while he is probably best known for 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman, he's no stranger to rock history, having previously directed the documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll and produced the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. From the very start of Ray, you can tell that this film was a labor of love for Hackford, who also co-wrote the script.
The movie begins in 1948 with a 17-year-old Ray Charles Robinson taking a bus to Seattle for a jazz club gig that would lead to joining the Gossie McKee jazz trio. From there it chronicles his record deal with Swingtime Records, touring with R&B guitarist Lowell Fulson, his discovery by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, and his meteoric rise to the top in the '50s and '60s. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to Charles' poverty stricken childhood in Florida, showing the traumatic experiences that would have ramifications on his life as an adult.
The camera work and visuals are excellent, as is the music, to which Charles contributed newly recorded vocals for the onscreen performances. And the attention to detail is wonderful; I love how Ray initially sings into the wrong end of the microphone for his first improvised performance of "What'd I Say"—the live recording captured on his Anthology album has the same muffled opening lyric.
A movie like this requires the perfect actor in the lead role. Jamie Foxx got his start as a comedic actor in 1991 with In Living Color, slowly gravitating to meatier dramatic roles over the last five years, most recently with an impressive turn in the thriller Collateral with Tom Cruise. Still, when buzz of the casting initially hit, many questioned whether Jamie Foxx was truly the man for the job—Ugly Wanda as Ray Charles?
Believe the hype. Foxx is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, and it'll take a brilliant performance of gigantic proportions from another actor to keep him from taking home the statuette in February. He's really that good. Between Collateral and Ray, Foxx now finds himself on the path to A-list stardom.
Some may argue that Foxx disappears into the character because he's able to hide behind Charles' trademark sunglasses and mannerisms, along with that familiar grin and quirky Southern drawl. All of these are spot on, but the portrayal is much more than a mere impersonation. It was a revelation to nearly everyone involved that Foxx grew up playing the piano, leading the band at his gospel church while growing up and attending university on a piano scholarship. Hackford sold Charles on the idea of Foxx by having him audition alongside the legend at the ivories. Additionally, Foxx dove into method acting by wearing a facial prosthetic that effectively blinded him during the shoot.
All to say that Jamie Foxx does an extraordinary job of losing himself in the role of Ray Charles for most of the film's two-and-a-half hours. He's completely believable, dynamic, and challenging. The acting is strong all around in Ray, not just with Foxx. Kerry Washington is especially memorable as Charles' beloved wife Della Bea, and Sharon Warren is very impressive in her cinematic debut as Ray's mother Aretha.
This is not only the tale of a musician's rise to stardom. It's also the story of a man taught to improvise and feel not just music, but everything in his life. Tough love from his mother prepared him for the harsh realities of his condition—Charles was doubly discriminated as a black and a blind man. It helps explain why he never used a cane or a dog, why he was originally paid in single dollar bills, where the inspiration for many of his songs came from, and why he wrestled with inner demons through the prime of his life. The flashbacks seem gimmicky at first, but they're essential to the heart of the film. The ending will seem far less abrupt if viewers understand that Ray is not about Charles' whole life story, but his path to success, both personal and professional.
Ray also gives a cursory look at the music business, tracing the development of a new talent. The relationships smack of reality, as Charles rises from the crooked performance deal at the jazz club, to the shady touring gig with the small label, to the major league recording deal, and then the superstar contract after that. It's interesting to watch how the people enter Charles' life, help him get to the next level, and then move on as he grows beyond them. Some of it is selfish and conniving, and some of it's just the nature of the business. It's not told to make Charles more or less sympathetic, or to portray music industry insiders as a bunch of shysters, but rather to tell it like it is.
In a biopic like this—especially one with direct input from Charles—there's also the fear that the filmmakers will whitewash the subject's past. Not so with Ray, which Charles insisted be true to his life, warts and all. The film clearly demonstrates the perils of downtime and idle cash on the road. Loneliness and alienation from whites and blacks alike led Charles to a 20-year addiction to heroin. He was also a shameless flirt, famous for his womanizing; his touring backup singers, The Raeletts, often joked that they had to "let Ray." If there's anything glossed over here, it's that Ray suggests he fathered one illegitimate child—Charles is survived by twelve children, and they're not all from his wife Bea.
It all suggests that amidst the crooked and prejudiced people over the rise of his career, Charles was ultimately his own worst enemy. He acknowledges his sins in this film as part of the journey on the road to healing. By finding strength in his weakness, and with the loving support of his wife, he overcame his obstacles. Though Ray is not a "Christian" film, there's plenty familiar about the descent into sinful habits and the way out of it—forgiveness and accepting responsibility for actions.
Ray in part goes through the same motions as other musical biopic: Musician rises above impoverished start, lands recording contract, and comes close to wrecking marriage/relationship over drugs and adultery—we've seen and heard it all before. It doesn't seem quite like Best Picture material, but the directing is sure-handed, the script intelligent, and the acting strong, especially the amazing performance from Foxx. It's better than most films of its kind, made apparent from how quickly it moves despite the lengthy running time. Ray tells the compelling story of an American music legend, putting his historical impact in proper perspective both professionally and personally.Discussion starters
- Early in the film, Charles is seen "having church" in his apartment by reading Scripture while listening to gospel music. Do you think this was his way of staying connected to faith while on the road, or running away from the church?
- Charles struggled with heroin addiction for nearly twenty years, while engaging in adulterous relationships while married. How is this like the double life we live with God and the temptations of the world?
- Describe how Ray shirks his responsibilities as a father. In contrast, how does Bea represent the ideal wife and mother?
- While coming to grips with his flaws and vices, Ray states, "God doesn't listen to people like me." Have you ever felt that way? What kinds of promises can we find in Scripture to refute that?
- What smart choices did Ray make in his life? What selfish and stupid choices? Were any of the bad choices justified by the position he was in or the end results? Did these choices reflect care and consideration for the people around him?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The drug use depicted in Ray thankfully never shows needle-to-vein, but there are plenty of before and after scenes involving substance abuse, not to mention an intense detox segment. Likewise, most of the sexuality involves before and after without showing it. The vaguely defined "thematic elements" probably refer to mature subjects pertinent to the story, like racism, adultery, and childhood trauma caused by death and glaucoma. Profanity isn't rampant, but does include instances of racial insults and taking God's name in vain. Though historical, educational, and not as graphic as it could have been, Ray is appropriately rated PG-13. Parents will have a lot to explain to their younger children should they choose to take them along to this mature film.
Photos © Copyright Universal Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/04/04
The United States just elected a president. And in a different contest, it appears that Hollywood has already elected this year's Academy Award-winner for Best Actor, even though the awards are still a few months away.
In director Taylor Hackford's Ray, Jamie Foxx's performance as Ray Charles is so impressive that almost every film critic that has seen it is talking about his Oscar chances. Playing the singer/songwriter from his early gigs in the Seattle jazz club scene and on through his meteoric rise to fame and several impressive reinventions, Foxx captures the charm, mannerisms, stage presence, strengths, and weaknesses of the man. He's supported by an impressive cast, including Kerri Washington (She Hate Me) in an affecting turn as his wife Della Bea; Curtis Armstrong (Better Off Dead) and Richard Schiff (TV's The West Wing) as his managers at Atlantic Records; Clifton Powell (Woman, Thou Art Loosed) as Jeff Brown, who keeps the band in line; and Regina King (Daddy Day Care, Enemy of the State) as Margie Hendricks, with whom Charles' has an extramarital affair.
Ray is worth seeing, not just for Foxx and the cast, but for the musical performances, the cinematography (by The Pianist's Pawel Edelman), and the sensitive portrait of an artist as a conflicted composer. Like Milos Forman's Amadeus, Ray reminds us that talent and genius have little if anything to do with wisdom. We come away from the film dazzled by the show, grateful for Charles' gift, and sobered by the consequences of reckless behavior.
And yet, while Ray reveals the genius of the artist and much about his personality, Hackford also conceals a great deal: including the story of Ray Charles' first wife, Eileen Williams, with whom he had a child, and stories related to other children he fathered. In a film that gives the appearance of telling the whole story (at 152 minutes), I can't help but wonder what Charles' other ten children are thinking, watching this film that fails to mention their existence (until the conclusion of the end credits), or acknowledge that Charles' marriage to Della Bea collapsed in divorce in 1977 after 20 years. The film is so intent on including all of the highlights that, in spite of Foxx's impressive work, we barely scratch the surface of the man's interior life.
My suspicion is that devotees of Charles' music will get much get much closer to the truth of his heart and soul than those who just see the movie and remain casual listeners.
My full review of Ray is at Looking Closer.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "From the very start of Ray, you can tell that this film was a labor of love for Hackford, who also co-wrote the script. The camera work and visuals are excellent, as is the music … and the attention to detail is wonderful."
About Foxx, he says, "Believe the hype. Foxx is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, and it'll take a brilliant performance of gigantic proportions from another actor to keep him from taking home the statuette in February. He's really that good."
He concludes, "Though Ray is not a 'Christian' film, there's plenty familiar about the descent into sinful habits and the way out of it—forgiveness and accepting responsibility for actions. Ray tells the compelling story of an American music legend, putting his historical impact in proper perspective both professionally and personally."
"Rarely have I seen an actor so deserving of the Best Actor Oscar," says Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "[Ray] is a moving film that portrays racism and segregation without the usual caricatures, showing honest whites and dishonest blacks alike, while also giving you a sense of how devastating it was to live in a world divided by segregation."
As for the "mature content," she says, "It's hard to tell a story about sin and its consequences without showing just that, and Ray serves as a powerful portrayal of life without Christ—something that some people just need to see to believe. It's also a moving story about the ability to overcome great hardship, as well as how easy it would have been for Charles' God-given talent to go to waste."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Biographical films, particularly those about living or recent celebrities, are notoriously tricky to pull off, but … Ray easily surmounts the usual pitfalls with an intelligent script, fine performances and a satisfying blend of music and drama. Though the film deals with some difficult subjects like drug addiction and infidelity, they are presented with great restraint, in a refreshingly nongraphic manner."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Resistance is futile. Ray is a winner … a must-see picture, both for the strength of its lead performance and for being such an honest and inspiring homage to a modern day legend." But he also points out some glaring flaws. "Lamentably, Hackford sometimes stumbles by making his film too sentimental."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says the story is "excellently told on many levels," but "too many of Ray's adult dilemmas are blamed on a single childhood trauma. And too many complicated issues are quickly resolved when he suddenly comes to grips with his guilt over that catastrophe." But he too praises Foxx's "virtuoso performance." He concludes, "Ray doesn't avoid the obvious moral of the story, which is wrapped up in the truth that a man can only be free when he's not a slave to vice. But it also seems to want to celebrate the idea that it is only out of conflict, pain and captivity that passionate music can be birthed."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) is not so impressed with the film: "Hackford's treatment of Ray's life is full of the typical Hollywood treacle." But he joins the chorus of praise for Foxx. "His portrayal of the legendary musician is nothing short of phenomenal. There are times during the film when it becomes all too easy to forget that we're watching an actor playing the part of Ray Charles. His impersonation is that uncannily accurate."
Rosemarie Ute Hoffman (Christian Spotlight) says it's "a compelling biographical drama … that will have you mesmerized due to Jaime Foxx's realistic representation."
Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says, "Ray is a wonderful movie, and it reveals the genius of an American original. As a film biopic, some events in his life are necessarily shortchanged, but any omissions don't overshadow the movie."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The film is the best I have seen this year. It is about hope for the complete integration on life in all areas."
Mainstream critics are singing Ray's praises.from Film Forum, 11/11/04
Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) say the "authentic" film "is worthy of the music which exemplifies his life. Though it can hardly be called 'uplifting' or 'inspirational,' this is a powerful film worthy of telling his life story."
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