If you had told me a few years ago that Taylor Hackford, a competent but rather dull journeyman, had a really good film in him, I would probably have laughed in your face. Well, the laugh is most definitely on me because Ray is that film. A riveting, elegant and incredibly moving biography of the great Ray Charles, it lives and breathes as a film, moving through a complicated life with streamlined grace and offering, through Jamie Foxx, one of the finest screen performances of the last ten years.
Screen biography is a dangerous beast. It’s too easy to produce either something close to libel or, worse, tame and prosaic hagiography. At worst, you end up with a film like Lady Sings The Blues which not only turns Billie Holiday’s life into trash melodrama but also gets the most basic facts wrong, or McArthur: The Rebel General which treats its subject with such reverence that you’d be hard pressed not to think he was some kind of messiah. In Ray, Taylor Hackford and screenwriter James White steer a middle course with considerable skill. Since the film focuses on the years between Ray Charles leaving Northern Florida and his final kicking of a destructive heroin habit, it would have been hard not to refer to the darker areas of Charles’ life but the decision to go for honesty rather than myth is to be commended. Anyone with ears to hear knows that the man was a fantastic musician but the film points up both his stubborn nature and his arrogance without ever trying to make him out to be a bastard or, on the other hand, a saint. Without his stubbornness, Ray would have never made it through his professional life amidst a pool of sharks eager to take him for all they could get or, indeed, had the drive to challenge Georgia’s segregation laws. But it’s made clear that his personality and urgent need to prove himself alienated potential allies and led him into a string of extra-marital relationships fuelled by the heroin which nearly ended his life and ate up the relatively minor profits he made from his early career.
Ray sometimes behaves terribly but this doesn’t make us hate him. The consequences of his behaviour are almost always felt most keenly by himself and by showing us that his flaws are part of what made him such a great artist, the film ends up with as rounded a portrait of Ray Charles’s best years as we’re likely to get. Much of this is down to Jamie Foxx whose performance is scintillatingly good. Even considering that he didn’t do his own singing , it’s an uncannily accurate physical and vocal impersonation but it’s a lot more than that. Like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Foxx plays the man as if he were a fictional character and this allows him to get right under the skin until the division between truth and fiction no longer makes any difference. Every word, every gesture seems completely right and adds to an overall impression that Foxx understands the demons which plagued this man and the drive which gave him a fundamental need to stretch the boundaries of musical genre, challenging the assumptions of country, jazz and blues fans. He refuses to go for easy sympathy and the result is a character who is sometimes infuriating but always credible.
The film goes for a broadly chronological approach with occasional flashbacks to Ray’s childhood - although, oddly, the time he spent away from home at a special school which clearly had a great impact on him is omitted. The somewhat clumsy explanation for his ‘inner demons’ turns out to be his inaction as a five year old when his little brother was accidentally drowned and this event is implicitly repeated several times with the musician imagining water overflowing around him. These flashbacks look gorgeous, incidentally, with the richly saturated gold-hued colours contrasting nicely against the toned down colours of the rest of the film. Ray’s mother is frequently thrown into the mix as well, her homilies - “Scratch a lie, find a thief” - coming back to her son at key moments. I could do without this, to be honest, and the whole ‘My momma’s here with us now, I can feel her” stuff is faintly nauseating. Luckily, this isn’t overplayed too much and its possible to forget about it. The decision to finish the film in 1966 when Ray was 36 is an interesting and, I think, correct one. As other writers have observed, when Ray kicked his heroin habit he stopped taking as many musical chances and there’s little in his later years to quite match the raw power of “What’d I Say” or “Hit The Road, Jack”. It means that we don’t get the parts of Ray’s life when he was able to enjoy basking in his own legend but there’s quite enough packed into 153 minutes already and any more would be a problem for anything shorter than a TV mini-series. A final scene where Ray returns to Georgia in 1979 gives us enough of a sense of how he became an elder statesman of American music to compensate.
Tayl0r Hackford’s direction is a model of good, professional storytelling which only occasionally draws attention to itself. Considering some of the attempts at showy technique which made films like Against All Odds such a chore to watch and led to Devil’s Advocate falling into incoherence, this is high praise. A good director knows his limits and Hackford seems to have realised that he’s best at decent, solid filmmaking which serves the story and his actors - Dolores Claiborne also demonstrated this ability. He’s clearly been passionate about the subject and the passion comes through in the way he allows Jamie Foxx time and space to develop a performance and in his clever and stylish direction of the musical numbers. He doesn’t make the mistake of editing them into abstraction but gives the performers a chance to develop their own rhythm and thus respects their talents. Hackford also works well with the rest of the cast, getting fine performances from Regina King, as Ray’s mistress Margaret, and Kerry Washington as his long-suffering wife - who eventually got sick and tired of him, although the film doesn't include their 1977 divorce. A particularly nice departure from most music biopics is the presentation of the executives from Atlantic Records as the professional, intelligent and supportive people which they apparently were.
Ray is a little simplistic and the social context of the seventeen years during which it takes place is somewhat skimped. There are references to race riots and segregation but the marvellous and defining moment when Ray refused to play in a segregated theatre in Georgia seems rushed over. Nor is the sense of a revolution being worked in popular music really emphasised. Ray’s decision to combine jazz with rhythm and blues and, later, to add gospel influences - creating soul music - and country are defining moments in music, just as important as Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band plugging in their instruments at the Newport Folk Festival. This is forgivable however, due to the decision to focus squarely on the character of Ray Charles and through Jamie Foxx’s sympathetic yet tough performance, this extraordinary individual is brought back to life in front of our eyes. Ray isn’t a great movie but it contains a truly great performance which genuinely deserves every award that it has won.
Ray looks just fine on DVD. The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is exceptionally good and serves the film beautifully. Although there is a small amount of over-enhancement present and a very minor amount of artifacting in some of the very dark interior scenes, the colours are satisfyingly rich and the level of detail high. There’s also just enough grain to give a suitably filmic appearance without appearing intrusive. Be warned, however, that the extended cut contains deleted scenes which are non-anamorphic and in a condition which ranges from reasonable to poor.
Just as importantly, it also sounds fabulous. A film which is so dependent on its soundtrack demands a special effort on the part of DVD producers and Universal have done a fine job on the Dolby Digital 5.1 track included here. The surrounds are mainly used for ambience and to strengthen the music but the front channels are thoroughly worked out with some marvellously stirring moments. This is a reference quality track that presents the music with beautiful richness and clarity. Dialogue is equally impressive.
The first disc of the two disc set contains the film in two versions. You can choose to watch the theatrical version or an extended cut. However, be warned that the latter option is not as pleasurable as it might sound. The deleted scenes are non-anamorphic and in pretty ropey condition and are inserted into the film through the kind of branching which will make some DVD players complain and which will result in a fade to black before they appear on all players. This is distracting at first and eventually very annoying. Also, if you’re watching the film with Taylor Hackford’s commentary switched on, this abruptly stops every time a deleted scene is included. None of the scenes are particularly vital to the movie either so my recommendation would be to watch the theatrical version and look at the deleted scenes separately.
Taylor Hackford’s commentary on the film is typically impressive. He’s a natural commentator as his previous tracks have demonstrated and I thoroughly enjoyed what he had to say here, which covers the entire 153 minutes of the movie. There’s material about the real Ray Charles and his attitude to the movie, the casting of Jamie Foxx, the historical background and the problems which Hackford had to overcome. If you like the film then this will be a valuable companion.
The second disc features the bulk of the extras and a rather disappointing lot they are. There are plenty of existing documentaries about Ray Charles which would have been useful as a comparison to the film but the featurettes included here are superficial and not particularly impressive. My favourite among the extra features was the chance to see the full versions of “What Kind of Man Are You” and “Hit The Road Jack”. The 14 Deleted Scenes which you can view in the extended edition of the film on the first disc appear here with optional commentary from Hackford. I’m not sure they do anything except make the film longer while repeating points made better elsewhere but I did like the scene where Ray and Oberon share a joint.
Otherwise, “A Look At Ray” is a three minute collection of film clips and brief comments from Hackford and Foxx. “Ray Remembered” is five minutes worth of reminiscences from the likes of Quincy Jones and Al Green. “Walking In His Shoes” looks at the methods by which Foxx transformed himself into Ray Charles and is worth seeing for the man himself and a good jam session between the two musicians. We also get the trailer for the film - terribly self-important - and previews for Cinderella Man, Friday Night Lights and The Motorcycle Diaries.
The film is fully captioned in English, French and Spanish. The commentary isn’t subtitled but the extra features on the second disc are.
There’s a good number of reasons to see Ray and chief amongst them is Jamie Foxx’s amazing performance which richly deserved the Oscar it received a few nights ago. If you didn’t catch it in the cinema then it’s well worth getting hold of this DVD, although you may be slightly disappointed that the second disc isn’t as good as it could have been.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:56:07