The key for any biographical film is the ability of the lead actors to believably metamorphose themselves into who ever they are playing. Some have been superb such as Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, Will Smith in Ali and others have been less successful such as the guy who plays Gorbachov in Rocky IV – he didn’t even have a red mark on his head for pity’s sake.
Now with the latest biographical film, Ray, Jamie Foxx takes on the challenge of playing one of the greatest musicians of our times; the late great Ray Charles.
The film begins in 1948 with a 17-year old Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) heading to Seattle to play in a lounge club. As Ray tries to find his feet he learns to negotiate an often hostile world, where his honesty and forthrightness are not always appreciated. In Seattle he meets some important people, namely his life long friend Quincy Jones (Lorenzo Tate) and the club’s announcer (Warwick Davis) who turns him onto weed.
Soon the film moves onto the road as Ray tours with the newly formed McSon trio and his popularity grows when he starts to blend gospel and blues – much to the disgust of some who believed he tainted God’s music. He also meets his wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington) and embarks on his two weaknesses whilst on the road; women and heroin. Both vices follow him throughout his career as he goes from musical strength to strength. When Atlantic Records finally signs him on and with the help of his mentors at Atlantic Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), Ray starts to take control of his own business and his own destiny.
During the film there are numerous flashbacks to Ray’s childhood where he endured two major tragedies; standing helplessly frozen while his younger brother drowned in front of his eyes when he was aged five and starting to go blind at the age of seven. He was helped (although it may not appear so at times) through both incidents by his very strong willed mother who refused to allow her son to become a cripple through his blindness and always pushed him to break out of the poverty they lived in. Even throughout the successes he had during the time covered by the film, the haunting images of his brother stayed with him and the heroin started to fuel a darker side to him.
The little touches to the film are great such as the fact that Ray insisted that he got paid in single dollar bills so that unscrupulous club owners couldn’t cheat him out of money or the fact that his mother stood watching her son crying on the floor to make him more self reliant even though every mothering instinct in her wanted to pick him up and reassure him.
There are a few moments where director Taylor Hackford loses the flavour of the film such as the effect of the death of his brother had on Ray. It’s obvious that the heartbreak of such a tragic incident and one that Ray could have prevented affected him in a profound way, but to have Ray hallucinating about water and his brothers body is a cheap devise. In one instance Ray reaches into a suitcase to feel water (or image to feel water) as the hand of his dead brother emerges like some sort of cheap horror movie.
Some parts of the movie almost seem made up, but are true depictions, such as when Ray ran out of material during a gig and started playing with his electrical piano whilst instructing his band to follow suit creating a raucous and impromptu version of “What’d I Say”.
As mentioned at the start of the review, the key to a biographical film is the accuracy of the character being portrayed and without a doubt Jamie Foxx has epitomised the real Ray Charles. His performance is incredible with twitchy, hyperactive perfection he brings Ray Charles to life on the screen. He bears a strong resemblance to Charles already, but the mimicry is mirror perfect, with the tapping of the feet, the high-lipped smile and the charisma that oozed out of the real Charles flowing though him. Is it deserving of an Oscar? Probably, but either way it would be a shock if he’s not at least nominated.
On the whole Ray is a very entertaining look into the earlier life of Ray Charles, but even the performance of Foxx cannot hold back what is essentially a weak film at times. Luckily whenever there is a lull in the proceedings, the film manages to squeeze in a classic Ray Charles number and gets going again. Speaking of which, seeing that Ray Charles was involved in the film for many years before his death earlier this year in June, the film makers had complete access to his recordings and as a result the music is absolutely superb throughout. The film does leave you with a sense of slight dissatisfaction mainly due to the feeling that director Taylor Hackford was using ‘How to direct a biopic for Dummies’ at times.
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