“I love Ray Charles — who doesn’t?”
-overheard in theater just before Ray.
From the outset, a film about the life of Ray Charles is the recipient of a great deal of audience goodwill for its subject but also of tremendous expectations of the actor playing him. We feel we know Ray Charles; even those who aren’t fans of the music know the persona, whether from recordings, concerts, film appearances, televised performances, or even Diet Pepsi commercials. His manner was so distinctive and recognizable that it would be easy to slip into caricature. In the title role, Jamie Foxx doesn’t quite do that, but he doesn’t quite convince us either. He works from the outside in, uncannily mastering Ray’s vocal mannerisms, swayback stance, and mobile head, but he doesn’t dig deeply enough into the character. It’s a bravura performance, but we never feel that we really know who Ray Charles was, or even that Foxx does.
This isn’t entirely his fault. The film’s director, Taylor Hackford, has filled the screen with so much business that characterization is frequently lost in the shuffle. There are few quiet moments, and we almost never see Ray alone in a room — when we do, it’s not so that we can observe him, it’s to establish another plot point. It’s said that Hackford has been trying to make a film biography of Ray Charles for 15 years — by the time he got the chance was his passion for it already spent? His Ray Charles has come unstuck in time — the way he’s constantly flashing back to earlier events, he seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Hackford tries to compensate for a lack of visual ingenuity by keeping the screen overbusy and the chronology confusing. This may be the first biopic assembled like an action movie. The cinematographer, Pawel Edelman, keeps the camera constantly moving, but there isn’t enough variety in what we’re shown; at times the film seems shot entirely in close-ups. The editing, by Paul Hirsch, is paced at breakneck speed — it never allows us to really get a handle on what we’re watching. Some scenes are so hectic they could induce seizures in epileptics.
Ray’s passion for his music was right up front, in his beatific smile and spasmodic rocking, it was as though there was too much music in him to direct it all into his fingers; he looked ready to pop. When he’s performing, Foxx gets Ray’s manner just right, but he can’t bring the same conviction to the dramatic scenes, and the script keeps pulling him back offstage, into a flashback or a domestic situation, even in the middle of a song. This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film: It’s a disservice to an artist to suggest that we’re more interested in his personal problems than we are in his work. Hackford doesn’t trust his strongest material.
The flashbacks frequently take us to Ray’s dirt-poor childhood in northern Florida. The drowning of his younger brother, George, is treated as his Rosebud — he’s repeatedly shown hallucinating about water and a child’s limp, delicate limbs. But the story, when we finally get it, is falsified: young Ray stands frozen as his brother falls into a large washtub, thrashes about, stops, and is finally pulled out when his mother notices he’s fallen. In reality, Ray tried to save his brother, but the weight of his waterlogged clothing was too much for five-year-old Ray and he ran to get his mother. Ray’s feelings of guilt were, by his own account, a significant influence on the man he became, but the accident was horrible enough as it occurred — why did Hackford have to trick it out in this horror-movie way? He seems to abhor subtlety.
The parade of musicians and industry notables Ray met on the way up is ludicrously handled. Hackford can’t be bothered to drop clues or let us find out a minute or two into a scene that this is the Quincy Jones; each time a famous person introduces himself to Ray, he’s been directed to state his full name and speak a little louder and enunciate more clearly. It’s the same when Jack Lauderdale (Robert Wisdom) suggests to the young Ray that he use his middle name as a surname to avoid confusion with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson — it has the perfunctory feeling that the “Che” scene in The Motorcycle Diaries had. Hackford might as well flash “IMPORTANT EXPOSITION” on the bottom of the screen.
The whole movie has that texture; each scene feels obligatory, not played for pathos or comedy or any kind of audience enjoyment, they’re just in there because you can’t tell the story without them. The actors hit their marks — Ray gets his big break, begins touring, starts using heroin, meets his future wife — and then they’re racing to the next story point. Hackford and his co-writer, James L. White, have tried to sprinkle the exposition throughout rather than load too much into a single scene, with the effect of making it seem that all Ray ever does is talk about his blindness and explain how he gets around (The scene where his five-year-old son spontaneously asks him how he knows if his socks match is a particular beauty). Don’t blind people occasionally talk about other things, perhaps, if they’re musicians, music? And the script is full of howlers, like the studio engineer who intones, “You’ve got to be original or you’ve got nothing.” (How long has this guy been in the music industry — a day?) Or the Indianapolis cop who says to Ray, “Your jungle music is poisoning our kids’ minds, and I’m going to put you away forever.”
All the scenes involving race relations are just about this deep. One at the beginning shows Ray sitting at the back of a bus behind a sign that reads “Colored Only” and we’re primed to see how he overcame racist attitudes throughout his career. Then there aren’t any references to racism for another 45 minutes or so. When he does encounter bigots, they’re cartoon bullies like that cop; there’s no hint of the subtle but pervasive racism that infected all aspects of American society then (or now). Mightn’t there have been white musicians or nightclub managers or record company executives who were subtly condescending? Wouldn’t Ray, who was a bit of a hothead, have been infuriated in those situations? Hackford doesn’t tell us. When we do see Ray taking an important stand, becoming the first performer to refuse to play a segregated venue in the South, he’s convinced to do so by a stranger in a space of 15 seconds — it’s as if Rosa Parks had flipped a coin to choose her seat on the bus.
As Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, Curtis Armstrong (best known as “Booger” in The Revenge of the Nerds) is spectacularly miscast. In his first scene, he looks like a “Saturday Night Live” cast member doing a bad celebrity impersonation. His performance is just embarrassing; he seems like a nonprofessional with no acting experience. (Was he cast strictly on the basis of a slight physical resemblance? If so, not even that works — the phony baldness and heavy makeup make his entire head look like a rubber Halloween mask.) After a while, he becomes less self-conscious, we get used to him, and he begins to seem only a bit off-key, but the damage to the film’s texture has been done.
The actresses who play the women in Ray’s life are much better chosen. As his mother, Aretha, newcomer Sharon Warren gives a raw, energetic performance. The character is conceived in clichéd terms, but Warren’s conviction enlivens the role, though she can’t save the off-key inserts in which Aretha speaks directly to the camera — to Ray — delivering maxims about self-reliance and inner strength; probably no one could. As Ray’s wife, Della Bea, Kerry Washington is forced to spend too much time just looking gorgeous and long-suffering, but she does have two good scenes, a beautifully shot romantic lunch with Ray when they first meet and a powerful confrontation much later, when she issues the final challenge that drives him to quit shooting up. The most powerful supporting performance, though, comes from Regina King as Margie Hendricks, the head Raelette and Ray’s longtime mistress. She’s a spitfire, willing to challenge Ray from the beginning, when the other girls are too intimidated to do much more than giggle. Her tempestuous relationship with Ray provides some of the film’s most effective moments — there’s a whole other movie peeking out of those scenes.
When Ray plays the ladies’ man, we see his charm and magnetism; we understand why so many women were drawn to him. But, with the exception of Bea, with whom he’s embarrassingly unambiguous in an early scene, we never see what they mean to him. When Margie dies suddenly, of an overdose, it comes as a shock, but it’s as big a shock when Ray breaks down crying — from what we’d seen of them together, it seemed plausible that, as far as he was concerned, she was just an appealing piece of tail.
The biggest problem with Foxx’s performance, though, is his voice. He does a wonderful job of catching Ray’s speech patterns, the way he seemed to be singing even when he was just talking, but he varies in timbre throughout, at times getting far higher than the rich baritone we remember. There are several moments where he’s speaking in this pipsqueaky manchild’s voice and then launches into one of Ray’s lowest, raspiest songs, and, while we know Ray had a wide vocal range (there’s a great scene where he sends the Raelettes home and records their three-part harmonies himself, flawlessly), it just doesn’t jibe. Some of the other performers suffer from this problem as well. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Mary Ann Fisher, the first female vocalist Ray hired to perform with his band, is credible in her audition, singing in a high, sweet voice, but isn’t later, when she has to really belt one out. Again, it’s Regina King who comes off best. When she’s ended her affair with Ray and she lip-synchs Margie wailing out all her anger and hurt on “Hit the Road, Jack,” you believe her totally.
It’s Ray Charles’ music that really makes the film worth seeing, and while it’s frequently undermined by the needless crosscutting, there are some numbers that work brilliantly. We’re there at a club where, having to fill an additional 20 minutes at the end of their set, Ray begins improvising, and the band and the Raelettes join in, composing “What’d I Say?” in front of us. On one level we don’t really buy the scene — we know the song couldn’t have been put into its finished form in an impromptu jam session — but we get so caught up in it, in the marvelous live recording they’ve used and the way Foxx’s hands fly across the keyboard (he did all his own playing) and the energy of the performers, that it’s magic.
The film’s weakest part is the ending. Having pelted us with the major highs and lows of Ray’s life for well over two hours, Hackford has no idea how to tie it all up. Ray goes into a clinic to kick his heroin habit and we watch dumbfounded as he hallucinates a sentimental reunion with his dead mother and brother in which they forgive him and chastise him at the same time. And that’s about it. A few title cards, a brief, tinny reenactment of a later moment, and then the credits. We’ve watched Ray’s struggle with heroin addiction all this time, but we never get to see what it means to him to give it up. Did it make him a better father? husband? musician? Did he have a hard time adjusting to working clean? After watching him exorcise his demons, we want to go out on a high note, to see him working again with newfound confidence or ease. Instead we’re reminded of his recent death, and the song that plays over the credits is his slow, nostalgic “Georgia on My Mind.” Hackford (the name is apt) makes a terrible esthetic error, sending us out of the theater thinking about the man we’ve lost rather than the music we’ve gained.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Ray / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()