As should be expected from a film that picked up a major Academy Award, Ray is very much a mainstream prospect. Telling the story of Ray Charles’ life primarily during the fifties and sixties, it does so in typical Hollywood fashion, reducing his life to a series of set pieces and one big narrative arc. However, being a mainstream product it also tells this story with a slick verve, flying through the years with a cute visual style (lots of swipes and animated headlines) and an obvious passion for the music.
Such a slickness obviously makes Ray a welcome enough package for a large audience, but the film is far from satisfying. It’s primary problem - and this is one that affects numerous biopics - is that it doesn’t share the drama and emotion of its subject’s output. Any film about Muhammad Ali, for example, needs to be the equal of his greatest bouts otherwise it can’t help but feel lopsided, and the same is true of Ray. Throughout we hear Charles’ music as performed by the man himself and much of it is superb, yet nothing the film can muster during its various big scenes (which is pretty much every one) matches the power or intensity of his performances of ‘What I’d Say’, for example, or ‘Georgia on My Mind’.
Of course, to be able to do so is going to be an undoubted challenge, yet director Taylor Hackford and writer James L. White do little that works in their favour. Ray isn’t so much a film about Ray Charles as it is one of hardship overcome. In this case that means poverty, the death of a sibling, blindness, racism and drug abuse, all of which have to be negotiated as a means of achieving true happiness. Indeed, the film’s trajectory is governed solely by the overcoming of these obstacles and as such Charles risks becoming a cipher in his own movie, at best a plot function. Moreover, each scene is governed by the same factors and in such a way that their significance becomes obvious - when Charles has his first taste of heroin, for example, we are fully aware that the picture is going to be moving towards his eventual rehabilitation - plus there’s the annoying trait in which everything is spelled out so that the point becomes clear to even the least responsive of audiences: “Look at him... he’s totally hooked”, “Nobody’s ever combined R&B and gospel before!”, etc. etc. (As a side note, fans of trashy biopic dialogue will surely relish the moment in which a young black appears merely to say “Hi, I’m Quincy Jones”.)
So where does this leave the actors? With little to do, to be honest. Jamie Foxx won the Oscar for his title portrayal, of course, and he does offer an able facsimile, matching both Charles’ physicality and vocal intonations as well as capturing his wit. Yet whilst he may be unrecognisable from the brash young actor who appeared in Any Given Sunday and Booty Call, there’s also no third dimension. He gets a couple scenes from one year before moving on to a couple of scenes from another and as such is never able to truly grow into the role; as said it’s his “journey” which is important (on his commentary Hackford describes it as an “odyssey”), not the man himself. And the same can be said of the supporting cast. Thankfully Ray doesn’t wheel in the celebrity cameos a la Gandhi, but it never really gives its various players a chance. Thus talented performers from Bokeem Woodbine (who can manage to be watchable even in such trash as Sniper 2) to Richard Schiff are never able to move up to the levels they can easily achieve when given better material.
This isn’t to say that Ray is unwatchable or even especially bad, it’s just decidedly ordinary. For a film which uses its subject’s signature as a means of rendering its title, you’d expect something a little more personal, and for a film about a figure forever associated with ‘soul’, it lacks the requisite depth.
Ray arrives on DVD looking expectedly fine. The film alternates between more austere tones for the main narrative thread and a stylised over-saturated look for the flashbacks, yet both pose little problem for the disc. There are moments when perhaps the contrast is a little too high, but these instances are rare. Furthermore, the film has been given an anamorphic transfer at a ratio of 1.78:1. As for the soundtrack, the DD5.1 mix is little short of superb. Indeed, for a film that is wall-to-wall great music, it needs to be and thankfully doesn’t disappoint. Moreover, the quieter moments are captured in an equally unproblematic fashion.
Presented on two-discs, it is the first which offers the more interesting special features. An extended version, with approximately 27 minutes of additional footage, is available, though the extra material mostly consists of minor extensions to scenes rather than anything which drastically affects the overall tone of the film. Note, however, that this additional footage is presented non-anamorphically and is also signalled by a tiny signal which seriously reduces any viewing pleasures.
Also present on the first disc, aside from a promo for Universal Studios Mediterranea, is a commentary from director Taylor Hackford on the theatrical version of the film. He opens up his chat by promising that he’ll “be talking all the way through [the picture]” and it’s a promise that he keeps. He’s especially good on separating the fact from the fiction (and also noted where it had been distorted) and on discussing the technical aspects (such as the use of stock footage), yet he also spends much of his film describing what is happening which can be, at times, faintly patronising.
The second disc’s extras are less meaty than the first, though the deleted scenes (fourteen in total) are noteworthy. Being identical to those that are included in the extended version, the option to watch them as stand alone pieces is far preferable given the way in which they have been incorporated into the main feature. As said, there’s nothing groundbreaking amongst them although there is an optional commentary by Hackford to accompany each of them. Also present are two extended musical numbers which are fairly self-explanatory and understandably enjoyable.
The rest of the disc is made up of brief featurettes and promos for the soundtrack and the recent Genius tribute concert. The ‘A Look Inside’ piece is typically EPK fluff, but thankfully swift, which leaves ‘Stepping into the Part’ and ‘Ray Remembered’. The former is the more interesting as it contains footage of Foxx meeting Charles and the pair messing about the keyboards. It also delves into the technical side of the film’s production with relation to its portrayal of Charles’ blindness and how that was achieved using prosthetics. The latter is a tribute piece which doesn’t really amount to much but does feature contributions from Quincy Jones and Al Green amongst Hackford and some his cast members.
Oddly, the extras features come with a raft of optional subtitles in numerous languages, yet the film itself offers only optional English subs.