Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
There may be a great film in the life story of late iconic musical
genius Ray Charles, but "Ray" isn't it. Set primarily during Charles'
formative years between 1948 and 1965, director Taylor Hackford (2000's
"Proof of Life") and first-time screenwriter James L. White parade
out a greatest hits of the events during his rise to stardom without
managing to make it seem personal and true. As far as biopics go,
"Ray" covers all of the conventional, melodramatic basesóhis drug
abuse, the affairs he had behind the back of his long-suffering wife,
his childhood roots in the South involving a tragic death and his
own blindness. While these elements were, indeed, a part of Ray Charles'
life, the paint-by-numbers approach taken in portraying them quickly
becomes tedious and predictable.
Blind since the age of seven (and frequently flashing back to this
time period), the film begins in earnest in 1948, as Ray Charles Robinson
(Jamie Foxx) boards a bus to Seattle to play piano at a dive downtown.
The workers and patrons there are quickly taken by this man and his
music, who refuses to be treated like a handicap and lights up the
room with his singing talents. After having a meet-cute with his soon-to-be
wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), Ray's musical career takes off,
later forming a slam-bang trio of back-up singers called the Raylettes.
But, as he becomes loved by millions for his music and extraordinarily
wealthy, his weaknesses with women, including Raylette header Margie
(Regina King), hard drugs, and terrible memories of his past soon
take their toll on himself and his family.
"Ray" has two strong attributes, one a foregone conclusion. The soundtrack,
which features practically all of Ray Charles' big hits, crackles
and pops with energy. Whenever the incendiary classic songs themselves
are at the forefront of scenes, allowing them to play out with Ray
at the piano and the Raylettes performing by his side, the film takes
off. The other notable quality of "Ray" can be found in the uncanny
performance by Jamie Foxx (2004's "Collateral"), who embodies this
well-known figure with almost precise accuracy.
Regrettably, Foxx doesn't get much help from a screenplay that often
casts Ray Charles in a negative light. There is no sugarcoating in
his representation, a good thingóCharles was a man with a lot of personal
demons who turned to drugs and women to momentarily dull the painóbut
it is also difficult to like him from an audience perspective outside
of his music. He neglects and lies to his wife and children (only
cursorily seen), for one thing, and attempts at redemption in the
final minutes come too little, too late to garner much in the way
of sympathy for him. Because the picture is only set during his "dark"
years, shortchanging all of the charitable work he did later in his
life and the mending of his marriage with a measly concluding footnote,
it is difficult to see past the mistakes he made. And, dwelling on
a twenty-year span of his seventy-plus-year life while still clocking
in at over two-and-a-half hours in length, the picture manages to
still feel both vague in its details and repetitious in its standard-issue
In a large ensemble that features countless recognizable faces and
talents, only two supporting performances stand out and individualize
themselves. As put-upon wife Della Bea, Kerry Washington (2004's "Against
the Ropes") brings a strong-willed but helpless humanity to her scenes.
Less fortunately, Washington's role is a standard, oft-encountered
one, as she mostly stands on the sidelines, pleading for her husband
to get off drugs while not being nearly as ignorant about his infidelities
as he thinks. The most emotionally lingering relationship in the film
is between Ray and mistress/back-up singer Margie, who grow to love
each other but are ill-fated from the start. Regina King (2004's "A
Cinderella Story") is excellent as Margie, simultaneously vivacious
and touching, a woman with a lot of dreams for herself and too many
addictions to go along with them.
Geared with unwarranted prerelease hype that has more to do with Jamie
Foxx's Oscar-bound performance than the motion picture itself, "Ray"
is a disappointingly unoriginal and one-note biography of a man and
his life that were anything but. The music is certainly a showstopper,
but that comes merely as a bonus for director Taylor Hackford, whose
cinematic telling that surrounds the tunes doesn't hold up its end
of the bargain. Ray Charles may rightfully never be forgotten as a
one-of-a-kind artist, but the lackluster treatment he has received
in "Ray" would be more at home in a soap opera or made-for-television movie.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman