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Ray: Limited Edition

Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Starring Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington

Written by Taylor Hackford and James L. White
Directed by Taylor Hackford

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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    

Is the biopic Ray (2004) a "good" movie? Assuredly it is — but somehow that also seems beside the point.

Praised by critics and moviegoers alike, the film 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 (An Officer and a Gentleman, Proof of Life) and a talented supporting crew both on-screen and off — propelled the film into Oscar contention months before the nominees were announced, with many Tinseltown observers believing Foxx was practically guaranteed a statuette on awards night.

All chatter aside, Foxx and Hackford are good — but do they make Ray, as a film, great? After all, that's what Oscar-winners are supposed to be. And unfortunately, when the stage-lights are extinguished and the final product is viewed in the stark light of day, it remains merely good. Entertaining. At times engrossing. But far too formulaic and disjointed 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 Ray Charles, the iconic pianist and singer who transformed popular music by fusing gospel with rhythm-and-blues, delivering the earliest sounds of a "soul" music that would become an indelible part of American popular culture during the 1950s and '60s. The story begins as young Ray (born Ray Charles Robinson) leaves his home in Florida, barely out of his teens, to find work as a musician in rainy Seattle, Wash. 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, and finding that his early records are not climbing the charts, 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, on the Atlantic label. 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).

*          *          *

After watching Ray, one is tempted to recall director Michael Mann's comments after he completed Ali (2001), a cinematic misfire that nonetheless made stars Will Smith and John Voight Oscar contenders.

"I don't plan to do another reality-based movie," Mann told London's The Guardian. "I was supposed to direct a movie about Howard Hughes next, but now I'm not going to do it. I started to feel that the format was too imprisoning. It's like, 'In 1947, Howard Hughes goes in front of a congressional hearing.' … And I'd like to say, 'Y'know what? He crashes his plane on the way to the hearing.' But you can't do that."

Thus, The Aviator (2004) wound up in the hands of Martin Scorsese, and also alongside Ray as one of the year's top Oscar contenders. No surprise there. 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, with additional biopics Kinsey and Beyond the Sea campaigning for nods.

Actually, a nearly incalculable host of films based on real people have delivered Best Actor or Actress nominees — in the past several years alone, these include Monster, The Hours, Frida, Ali, A Beautiful Mind, Quills, The Hurricane, The Straight Story, Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Boys Don't Cry, Elizabeth, Gods and Monsters, Shine, Schindler's List, Malcolm X, Chaplin, Bugsy, and Reversal of Fortune. 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. After all, 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 to achieve moral clarity/superiority. (Artists and disabled people always rate high with Oscar, making Ray something of a double-threat). For such purposes, Ray Charles himself has been, shall we say, "dehabilitated" in Ray. His history with drugs has never been a secret (he was busted for heroin in 1965), 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.

The point is in fact made over and over again, with contrapuntal regularity — typically concluding with another of Charles' legendary songs arriving fully formed, seemingly out of thin air. After visiting Bea, he sits at the piano and improvises "I Got a Woman"; told he still has 20 minutes to play at a gig, he tears into "What I Say?" for the first time (which the band picks up in a matter of seconds); given an ultimatum by Margie , who is pregnant with his child, he immediately rips into "Hit the Road, Jack" (and yes, Margie picks up the second chorus flawlessly). It all arrives with such clockwork precision that it ultimately feels both manipulative and disingenuous, offering a seemingly organic but false version of artistic creativity instead of the sweat, determination, and occasional misfires that all artists — including Ray Charles — must endure. 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. However, the extended version is not quite a "director's cut" of the film, but rather includes 12 deleted scenes, with fully apparent seams, making the longer version a somewhat disjointed experience.

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.

— J. Jordan Burke

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