Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Taylor Hackford

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis, Sharon Warren

MPAA Rating:  (for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements)

Running Time: 2:32

Release Date: 10/29/04

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Propelled by the life, times, and music of the late, great Ray Charles and a virtuoso performance by Jamie Foxx, Taylor Hackford's Ray emerges as an honest and loving tribute to one of the few, true legends of modern music. The film chronicles Charles' early career and childhood, painting a portrait of a man who overcame going blind at the tender age of seven to become the most diverse musician of his (and, arguably, any) generation but, for a long time, was unable to conquer his own personal demons. Despite of and perhaps driven on by this, Charles managed to take his passion for music to an unprecedented level. Following the perpetually bespectacled Charles from smoky jazz clubs to highly efficient (and equally smoky) recording sessions to sold-out auditoriums, the film documents his musical growth and output of the period, giving a fascinating perspective on the creation of the music (both from the artistic and business end of matters) beyond mere highlights on the soundtrack. Hackford and company wisely and instinctively trust this story and simply allow their work to serve it, and the result is a film that does its subject due justice.

Charles (Foxx) grew up in rural Florida as Ray Charles Robinson, the son of Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren), a for-hire washer. After finishing school in Florida , the still-young Charles makes his own way to Seattle in 1951, where he quickly makes a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist in local bands and for his solo act, impersonating the likes of Nat "King" Cole. After discovering that his current manager is keeping money from him, he moves on to a new manager, who sends him on the road as the pianist for a different ensemble. He finds even more recognition in his place here and feels even more separated from the rest of the world, which leads him to experiment with heroin and an addiction that would last over a decade. After an intense falling out with that act, Charles moves to New York and is approached by Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong), founder of Atlantic Records, who offers him a record deal. With the support of the company and of his eventual wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington), Charles goes on to record hit after hit, but the death of his younger brother shortly before he went blind continues to haunt him and sends his personal life slowly but surely on a downward spiral.

Screenwriter James L. White's script doesn't gloss over the less attractive areas of Charles', although he certainly doesn't condemn them (after all, Charles lent his personal approval to the screenplay). In addition to his heroin addiction, the film portrays his womanizing, including a pair of extramarital affairs with backup singers (dubbed The Raelettes, leading one of them to jokingly ask if they have to "let Ray") that he partook in while on the road. The affairs surprisingly put less of a strain on his marriage than they do on the music. Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis), the first we encounter, desperately wants a solo, which he grants her. Eventually, when Ray's affections turn to Margie Hendricks (Regina King), the leader of the new vanguard of Raelettes, Mary Ann leaves. The ensuing relationship is complicated by Charles' addiction, and it leads her down a similar road, despite his threats to keep her away from drugs. His wife is not doormat of any sort, though, and she insists that he keeps what happens on the road out of their home. When the life of the road threatens to potentially end his life, career, and marriage, she finally confronts him, telling him that if he doesn't give up his current lifestyle, he will lose the thing he loves the most: his music.

It's not surprising that this is the turning point in his life, considering how much attention the film pays to his music. The soundtrack features classic and new recordings from Charles himself, but Hackford goes beyond a mere highlight reel by fully integrating the music within the story. We see the inspiration for a few songs, including "Marianne" being performed for his mistress and a fight between Charles and Margie leading to an impromptu performance of "Hit the Road Jack" in a hotel room. The scene that perhaps best illustrates the creation of music is one in which Charles and his band finish a concert early and are forced to perform longer or face a heavy fine, and the improvised set that ensues leads to Charles' cross-over hit "What'd I Say." Similarly, the music heightens certain scenes, including one of many confrontations between Charles and Bea before which he plucks away at "You Don't Know Me." The film also touches upon the controversy that arose when Charles took gospel music and infused it with lyrics of sexuality and his decision not to play for a segregated auditorium in Georgia, which led him to be banned from the state for life.

Hackford directs these musically inspired scenes in a way that captures the energy of the creative process, but he also handles scenes involving Charles' demons with an equal intensity. He and cinematographer Pawel Edelman give the flashback scenes an aesthetically pleasing, overly saturated look, and one scene, depicting the young Charles learning to "see" the world for the first time after losing his sight to Glaucoma, has a great emotional resonance. There's also a harrowing scene with Charles in a detoxification center, which leads to one of many show-stopping moments for Foxx. The comedian-turned-actor has had solid performances before, but his performance here is unlike anything he's done. Foxx moves far beyond caricature, which, considering the signature physicality of his subject, his performance might easily have fallen into. He embodies Charles, not only looking uncannily like him but also displaying the internal workings of the man. A Julliard-trained classical pianist, Foxx lends authenticity to the scenes of performance as well. As Charles' wife, Kerry Washington is a worthy partner, giving a wholly sympathetic performance as a strong and understanding woman who is far from nave about her husband's philandering.

This leads one to wonder why Charles stayed so isolated in confronting his feelings of helplessness, considering the support structure of family, professional associates, and countless fans surrounding him. Perhaps he felt he could only depend on himself. Perhaps he did not think anyone else could understand the world the way he did. Or perhaps it was pure stubbornness. Whatever the reason, Ray stands as an absorbing and stirring examination of the complex life of a musician who rightfully earned the moniker "the Genius."

Copyright 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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