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Ray: Limited Edition

Praised by critics and moviegoers alike, Ray (2004) earned attention from the moment the first previews were released, immediately highlighting star Jamie Foxx's uncanny channeling of R&B legend Ray Charles. Foxx's performance — along with confident support from director Taylor Hackford — propelled the film into Oscar contention months before the nominees were announced. All chatter aside, Foxx and Hackford are good — but do they make Ray, as a film, great? Unfortunately, when the stage-lights are extinguished, it remains merely good, but far too formulaic to actually offer any coherent observations about Ray Charles, except that he was a one of a kind, and a genius (we already knew that). Foxx stars as Charles, the iconic pianist and singer who transformed popular music by fusing gospel with rhythm-and-blues. The story begins as young Ray leaves his home in Florida to find work as a musician in rainy Seattle. Once in the Northwest, Ray takes up with manager Marlene (Denise Dowse), who has no problem keeping Ray happy in the bedroom while she short-changes his earnings. Before long Ray changes management, this time signing with a promoter. But after tiring of life on the road, Ray relocates to New York. It's only when his record contract is picked up by Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) that Ray scores his first radio hit. Not long after, he earns national attention with one of the earliest soul prototypes, "I Got a Woman," marries Houston gospel singer Della 'Bea' Robinson (Kerry Washington), and embarks on a legendary recording and performing career. But a taste for heroin he developed during his earliest days on the road has not abated, and while Ray continues to turn out the hits, he also grows increasingly addicted — all while carrying on an extramarital affair with backup singer Margie Hendricks (Regina King). Fictionalized non-fiction (semi-fiction?) always does well with Academy voters, and along with Ray, the 2005 Oscar season found The Aviator, and Finding Neverland in the running for Best Picture. When it comes to Oscar, a biopic nomination is something akin to holding 17 at the blackjack table. Such would be fine, were it not for the fact that our expectations from the genre have been substantially molded over the years, to the degree that the entire process of semi-fiction filmmaking has become as predictable as it is morally reassuring. Hollywood loves nothing more than the walking contradiction, the individual who appears on the outside to be immoral, amoral, conflicted, confused, or insane, but ultimately reveals some strength of character and triumphs over insurmountable odds. For such purposes, Ray Charles himself has been, shall we say, "dehabilitated" in Ray. His history with drugs has never been a secret, but his addiction is one of the script's few weight-bearing pillars, sharing equal time with his adulterous habits. Both are set against his musical genius and remarkable adaptability in a sightless world, and with a few broad brush-strokes viewers (and Academy voters) are given their delectable contradiction on a two-dimensional canvas. As with most biopics, pageantry becomes a substitute for drama, and in this case it actually distances us from the real Ray Charles by shoehorning his story into a convenient Hollywood format. Ray may be worth a clutch of Oscars, but one still can't help but wish it was worth so much more. Universal's two-disc "Limited Edition" of Ray offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a print that appears good, if intentionally desaturated, with fine-sounding Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Disc One features both the theatrical version (2 hrs. 32 min.) and an "extended version" that pushes the running time to nearly three hours. Taylor Hackford also offers a commentary on Disc One, while Disc Two includes the 12 deleted scenes, this time with optional commentary from Hackford, two extended musical sequences, the featurette "Stepping Into The Part," with a look at Ray Charles and Jamie Foxx on the keyboards together (10 min.), the promo featurette "A Look Inside Ray" (3 min.), the Charles tribute "Remembering Ray" (4 min.), the theatrical trailer, and promos for other Universal titles. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—JJB

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