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Ray *** (Out of Four)

Jamie Foxx in Taylor Hackford's film biography of the fountain of soul and rock and roll. Opening Friday, rated PG-13 for language, in area theaters.

It opens in raffish promise. It ends in appalling mediocrity.

And in between is one of the great performances in movies of 2004 -- Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. When all the year-end accounting is done, it may well turn out to be the greatest. It lacks for nothing -- heart, brains and loving fidelity to its singular subject who is, arguably, the most influential single musician in the history of American popular music.

It isn't merely that Jamie Foxx learned how to mimic uncannily the speech patterns, the walk and the gestures of Ray Charles (when the prosthetics were put over Foxx's eyelids to duplicate the appearance of Ray Charles, he left them there, so for much of the performance he truly couldn't see.)

It's that he put soul into the role, too; he never forgets, for a second, that he's done nothing if he merely convinces you. He has to move you, too -- to laughter, awe, pity, fear and all the rest.

If only Taylor Hackford's movie "Ray" were up to Jamie Foxx's performance. It's far from the first film -- especially biopic -- whose lead performance is far greater than the film that houses it and, for certain, it won't be the last.

It's simpler to pull together a great movie performance than to pull a great movie together, for one thing. And, for another, it shouldn't be forgotten how much a truly great movie performance owes to a filmmaker in the first place. Whole films have been wrenched hopelessly out of shape just to get a lead performance right.

That isn't what happened to "Ray." Taylor Hackford was dedicated and talented enough to get "Ray" made in a good way but not quite a big enough talent to match either his subject or his film's lead performance. You're watching a great American life onscreen and well told too. The artist we see is indeed life-sized. But his art, as is so often the case, has shrunk.

"Ray" is, to be blunt, a well-meaning white liberal's movie -- as candid and empathetic as it needs to be. And, importantly, it's got narrative strength and sweep. But, over and over, Hackford was either unequal to the full possibilities of "Ray" or to the tricky task of making a biopic about a man who was very much alive when the film was planned and made.

It's Ray Charles' own music you hear all through the film. His cooperation was crucial. The rough patches in the publicly reported life of this beloved artist aren't airbrushed out -- a "wife" (Raelette Margie Hendricks) he had on the road while his real wife stayed home, a heroin habit that eventually landed him behind bars.

Ray Charles has warts in "Ray," but no real character failings. Some B.S. Freudian mumbo-jumbo about witnessing his younger brother's death as a little boy named Ray Robinson is about as much of a red herring as dime store psychology can get. Of the real failings and fears of Ray Charles -- the then-living artist who sat willingly for his celluloid portrait - the film has very little to say. My guess is that it was too busy keeping Ray happy.

Here's a small piece of evidence: Ahmet Ertegun, the Atlantic Records president who co-created Ray Charles' stardom along with partner Jerry Wexler and Charles himself, is played by Curtis Armstrong, best-known as the dweeb investigator in "Moonlighting." Ertegun, in life, is almost universally thought to be a man of immense sophistication and golden instincts. He is here, miniaturized as a kind of gifted and decent twerp. It's either the Ray's-eye-view of his former boss or evidence of a filmmaker too eager to flatter a subject.

Even worse is the ending which I hate as much as any I've seen in several years. Without revealing details, the film locates the symbolic triumph of this amazing life in an empty political moment. No doubt it meant a lot to Charles himself but the real triumph of his life is located in the human heart and human ear, not in fatuous political platitudes. The music of black America has become the world's music and Ray Charles was one of the most important reasons.

If you were making, say, a life of Duke Ellington, you might be justified in ending the film with Richard Nixon's White House tribute to him. Ellington's father, after all, had once been a butler in that very same White House and that IS a great American story. The scene that ends "Ray" is a criminally limited white liberal's idea of an ennobling way to end this particular life.

He thought too small at the worst times. But you still have to give Hackford huge credit for what he's actually achieved.

The Ray Charles you first see is a fellow on the way to Seattle in 1948 who cons the driver of a segregated bus out of his prejudice against the blind by claiming to be a veteran wounded at Omaha Beach (Charles had been blind since the age of 6).

We see the full life of a performer who was a smash from the first time he ever played solo before an audience (I believe it) - but one who, at first, insisted he be paid in singles, lest he be cheated. He was so country, his fellow musicians called him "Bama." The way this film tells it, "What'd I Say" was a bit of last minute improv to fill up the contracted time for a live gig ("too damn sexual" says Wexler at the subsequent recording session, before Ertegun, smiling, says they'll release it.) In the film, his baritone saxophone player quit rather than play Ray's "satan's music" (a not uncommon view of the man who turned "I've Got Jesus" into "I've Got a Woman.")

The flashbacks are ungainly but revealing - the way, for instance, the young blind kid learned to imagine spatial relationships by such sounds as the boil of a teakettle.

The tone throughout is loving and reverent which, considering the public lovability of the subject, is hard to argue with.

Surrounding Foxx - and pulled up by his extraordinary performance - are supporting performances of uncommon strength: Kerry Washington as his wife Della, Regina King as Margie Hendricks, Sharon Robinson as his mother Aretha, Richard Schiff as Jerry Wexler.

But there was a chance here to do something great - to tell, for the first time on film, the real story of black musicians of his time on tour: the squalor, the loneliness, the humiliation and the herding leavened by hilarity, camaraderie, reckless recreational pursuits and the satisfaction, even the joy, possible at a gig.

It's a manic depressive existence that, as with so much else, this film flattens out and would rather not see for what it is.

It's blind, then, in artistic ways that its subject never was. And timid in a way its artistically fearless subject never was either.

But then, what makes it what it is, is that the star of "Ray" saw it and "got" it.

Greatness enough for one film.


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