Universal // 2004 // 153 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 20th, 2011
The extraordinary life story of Ray Charles.
"I don't care what you call me, man, just as long as my name is on the record."
Nobody thought that Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx, Collateral) would amount to much. After all, how far could a blind African-American man living in America during the 1950s go? Even so, Ray's self-reliance, considerable ambition and (most of all) remarkable musical talent continues to lift him to new heights. In a matter of just a few years, Ray makes the leap from small-time piano player to international superstar. In the midst of his meteoric rise, he meets a singer named Della Bea (Kerry Washington, Lakeview Terrace) and marries her. Life is good, but Ray quickly succumbs to the temptations the world of fame has to offer. Between the drugs, women and shady business deals, Ray's self-destruction seems to be keeping pace with his increasingly successful career. Can he turn his life around before it's too late?
When I saw Taylor Hackford's Ray for the first time back in 2004, I felt it was one of the best films of the year. So did many other people, for that matter: the film was given six Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture, Director & Actor) and Jamie Foxx scored a win for his iconic performance as the title character. I hadn't revisited the film in the years since, so I was really looking forward to digging into this Blu-ray release. Alas, I wasn't quite as impressed the second time around. Maybe I've seen one musical biopic too many in recent years, maybe the fact that I knew what to expect from Foxx's performance played a role, maybe the acting and the musical numbers overwhelmed less successful elements last time around or maybe Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story has forever ruined conventional musical biopics for me...whatever happened, I just didn't find Ray an Oscar-worthy experience this time.
That's not to say that the film isn't a worthy experience, however. To be sure, it's a very respectable, handsomely-produced biopic that ranks as "above-average" as far as such films are concerned. The main attraction remains Jamie Foxx, who hasn't given a stronger performance before or since (my apologies to fans of Valentine's Day). Without doing much to modify his looks, the actor slips into Charles' skin with remarkable persuasiveness, capturing the singer/songwriter's signature smile, speech patterns and body language without missing a beat. Yes, Foxx (a talented musician in his own right) is lip-syncing during most of the musical numbers, but these scenes are directed and acted so seamlessly that we never once feel a disconnect between what's on the screen and what's on the soundtrack.
The music, of course, is another big highlight. Charles has a sublime discography to pull from, even if the film only takes us through the mid-1960s. The musical numbers aren't merely obligatory inclusions designed to make us nod and say, "Yep, I remember that one," they're an integral part of the story. In what is simultaneously the film's boldest and corniest touch, many of the numbers directly comment on what's happening in Charles' life at the time. In one scene, he starts writing and singing, "Hit the Road, Jack" in the middle of a spat with one of his mistresses. Even more surprisingly, she starts singing it with him. This sometimes makes for awkward drama, but it also gives the songs a sense of immediacy. These songs are familiar, but the film's virtue is that it makes us feel like we're hearing them for the first time.
The storytelling is largely conventional, and characters have an odd tendency to spill out historical tidbits of importance. The intent is to keep the audience informed, but it makes the dialogue feel unnatural -- it's always irksome when two characters are telling each other things that both parties already know simply for the sake of bringing us up to speed. However, there are little moments here and there that manage to resonate. I like the little conflict between Ray and Wilbur Brassfield (the great Wendell Pierce, The Wire) over Ray's insistence on being paid in one-dollar bills (some have tried to cheat Ray due to his blindness), and I like the way the film isn't afraid of showing the character's darker side. To be sure, Ray was taken advantage of by many people, but Ray took advantage of others, too. Consider the way he treats his longtime friends at Atlantic Records -- in a striking change of pace, we see how an artist can sometimes mistreat a label rather than the other way around.
Ray received a well-regarded HD-DVD release back in 2006 and finally arrives on Blu-ray sporting a similarly impressive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The level of detail is excellent throughout, with a very faint level of grain present and no evidence of any significant tampering. The film's slightly muted palette works perfectly for establishing the film's period setting (and it contrasts nicely to the lush Technicolor look that period films set in the '50s often adopt). Blacks are rich and inky and shadow delineation is impressive. The audio is equally superb, which is essential given the film's heavy reliance on music. The musical numbers are predictably the audio highlights, bursting with energy and benefiting from impressive clarity. Otherwise, dialogue is clear and Craig Armstrong's mournful score comes through distinctly without ever drawing too much attention to itself (the film wisely only draws attention to the music when Charles is performing).
All of the supplements offered on the previous HD-DVD release have been repeated here: an introduction from director Taylor Hackford, a commentary track with Hackford, 27 minutes of deleted scenes (you also have the option of viewing the film with the deleted scenes included), extended musical performances and a nice batch of featurettes: "Stepping Into the Part," "Remembering Ray," "A Look Inside Ray," "The Filmmakers' Journey," "The Women of Ray" and "Ray: An American Story." In addition, the "U-Control" feature gives you the option to watch some picture-in-picture supplemental material as the film plays. The disc is also equipped with Pocket Blu and BD-Live.
I've already indicated that much of Ray follows a rather conventional path -- we've all seen the, "rise, fall and rise again" musical biopic story all too many times. While there are moments which invigorate the formula, most of the writing isn't strong enough to make us forget that we've seen this sort of thing before. In addition, the film occasionally slips into slightly overwrought melodrama, particularly during the scenes dealing with Ray's relationship problems and during the flashbacks to his childhood.
Ray may not be a modern masterpiece, but it's an admirable piece of old-fashioned craftsmanship boasting an electric lead performance from Jamie Foxx. The Blu-ray release merits an upgrade.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Extended Performances
* Pocket Blu