Friday 23 March 2012

Movie Review: Ray (2004)

The early life and times of Ray Charles, from a childhood of abject poverty in the 1930s to international success in the mid-1960s. Ray is a stylish biography, benefiting from gifted subject matter and an excellent Jamie Foxx performance.

The movie intercuts scenes from Charles' childhood with his career journey as a blind musician. The childhood scenes are set in Florida, with Ray, fatherless and around ten years old, witnessing his younger brother's drowning death and blaming himself for it. Subsequently he contracts the degenerative eye disease that would leave him blind, but his mother instills in him a strong sense of dignity and a refusal to accept the role of victim.

The main narrative follows Charles starting out as a young adult, leaving home to pursue life as a musician. A brilliant piano player, Ray joins a succession of rhythm and blues bands struggling on the endless bus tour circuit, building his reputation and crossing paths with a myriad dubious characters always eager to try and take advantage of a blind man. A raging thirst for sex and a monstrous heroin addiction are constant companions and threats to his well-being. Ray is eventually signed by Atlantic Records, where he breaks through to become a sensation by scandalously combining gospel music with rhythm and blues. Ray's appeal finally extends beyond black audiences as he is embraced by white teenagers, helping to spark the civil rights movement.

Ray is all about Jamie Foxx, as the talented actor and singer transforms himself into Ray Charles and delivers an absorbing and committed performance, deservedly nabbing the Best Actor Academy Award. Foxx is in almost every scene, and captures Charles' transformation from young man to struggling artist to superstar with a severe drug problem. Charles' mannerisms, quirks and movements are brought to life by Foxx in startling detail.

Director Taylor Hackford combines three elements to construct an engrossing 150 minute human drama. The childhood scenes appear at regular intervals to reveal the backstory in sepia-toned colours and melancholy hues. The career and personal struggles make up the bulk of Ray, but are punctuated with the terrific music of the man, seamlessly woven into the storytelling. The songs are variously performed in seedy bars, recording studios, performance halls, and sometimes simply in Charles' house as his compositions come to life. The quality and depth of the music are a reminder of the genius of Ray Charles, and constantly energize the film.

Ray's weakness is the lack of anything memorable in the movie other than the man and his music. The marriage, countless relationships with jealous women, brief studio battles, and unscrupulous low lifes come and go with little impression, neither the supporting cast nor the peripheral stories able to even notionally compete with the central role and performance.

Ray is a fitting tribute to a remarkable talent, a man who overcame physical and social odds stacked against him to prove the limitless potential of determination coupled to talent.

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