Movies by Matt: Ray

2004 will be remembered (at least in cinematic terms) not for the resurgence of the agitprop film (see: Farenheit 9/11, The Corporation) or for magnificent epics (e.g. Troy, or the much-awaited but mostly-likely-disappointing Alexander), but for biographical films, including glimpses at the lives of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, J.M. Barrie, Peter Sellers, Alfred Kinsey, Bobby Darin and Howard Hughes. But it may be remembered most for this week’s focus, a film about the life, times and musical stylings of that innovative artistic savant, Ray Charles, played by Jamie Foxx. Ray follows the course of Charles’ career from his early days in nightclubs in Seattle and Los Angeles to the height of his success in the 1960s, including his battle with heroin addiction, his fight against segregation and his legendary womanizing. A successful biopic is only slightly less rare than a successful sequel, because the clichéd rut is grooved by a character whose life as already been lived in the real world is almost as impossible to escape from as the rut grooved by a previous film. But Ray works on so many different levels, as a portrait of the artist, as a portrait of the times, as drama and as musical inspiration, that director Taylor Hackford has fashioned a superb film. Hackford’s reverence for the subject matter combines with a daringly honest portrayal of the late Mr. Charles (who collaborated on the project with what could be described as almost zealous energy)-we see both the man as a triumph over the uncontrollable and a victim of the intensely personal-so that the film rarely becomes too reverent or tepid, but still retains a respect for the genius and a fidelity to Charles’ legacy. That is not to say, however, that the film is without its flaws; for it, like so many other biopics, falls victim to that same old disease: the film focuses so intently on Charles (and rightfully so, for he is a vibrant and indelible figure) that the nuanced supporting roles and minuscule details are lost in the shuffle. Director Hackford loses control over much of the cast, allowing a combination of under-emoting boredom and lack of restraint to wash over the periphery, leaving a lukewarm feeling of mediocrity on the edges of the viewer’s consciousness. The sets are good, but seem distant and cold rather than energetic and vivid-the scenes set by Hackford’s own camera never live up to the promises made by brilliant vintage footage of Seattle, Los Angeles, and Harlem and never achieve the classic feeling set by the soundtrack. So, the film, which reaches for brilliance, falls ever so short, disappointing because it could have been that much better. The flashback sequences are almost crippling, coming close to ruining the pacing (and at times the film drags, at almost two and a half hours); indeed, one final flashback, close to the end of the movie, seems so contrived, so melodramatic and out-of-place that the entire film suffers from its life-sucking gravitational pull. The reason to see the film is not the direction, or the sets, but Jamie Foxx, who dazzles with sparkling electricity, complexly wrought poignancy and surprising control. He is never outrageous, never attempts too much, but instead risks just enough with his full inhabiting of Charles’ character to come out utterly on top, shifting and smiling with an ineradicable sense of fullness, range and restraint. Foxx belongs in this film: one believes he really is Ray Charles, one believes that he believes he is Ray Charles. He is not acting; he is living the role, delving deep into the loves, demons, triumphs and painfully dark trials of a man whose life spanned generations of American musical talent, a man whose life encompassed, in its infinitesimal way, America in the post-war era. Foxx elevates his game beyond the level of his accompaniment, just as Charles’ voice and dancing fingers seemed to rise above the bass, with a joyous vivacity and playful virtuosity. The soundtrack is classic, encompassing works folksy and lively, bluesy and heavy, sprinkled with gospel influences, juxtaposed with country-western, founded on jazz and seriously rhythmic. It crosses generational and generic boundaries with an innovative and gravelly texture. The original and new recordings by Charles mix the sweet and sour of his life into a veritable feast, brilliant for each track individually but brilliant most of all for its overarching theme, one of Americana, one of tension, one of change and adaptation and the shifting sands of time. The music and Foxx himself certainly deserve Oscar nominations, for they alone elevate a rudimentary biopic above the general level of expectations, above the clumsily sophomoric direction, above the mediocre supporting cast and, most of all, above the pitfalls of “genre” filmmaking. So I guess it does Charles real justice, because he elevated himself above the din, to be heard as a genuinely unique voice of real genius. Overall Grade: 5