Same Song, New Arrangement
In a noble and noteworthy attack on that narrative mule known as the biopic, the first two-thirds of Ray offers a swirl of movement, moments, and music. Even so, the disguise is a bit thin -- the biography of the late blind gospel-jazz singer, Ray Charles, still follows that familiar path of any celebrated artist: early struggle, rise to fame, then a painful, personal dip before final redemption.
To its credit, Ray sneakily makes the rise and the fall happen concurrently and steadily. In many stories of this kind, it's the rise that ultimately exposes and exacerbates those qualities that lead to the fall. Here, Charles's demon is a heroin addiction, but we see him getting hooked on it early in the film, while he's still only beginning his journey. As his fame steadily increases, his habit stays in the background, but it's everpresent. Essentially, the demon remains onboard in spite of the fame.
Still, that habit remains an obvious device to focus on. In the celebration of a life of music and strength against the odds, the drug addiction emerges as a third-act villain -- something conspicuous to anchor the story with. So while the moments leading up to the ending retain a sort of independent freedom, they form a spontaneous weave floating around a specter, and the progression of the movie unfortunately reveals their separate natures rather than a smooth blending of the two.
Charles, meanwhile, is presented as the contradiction that all of us are afraid to admit we are. He's a man of undeniable talent who gives in too easily to his vices. The movie portrays him with a gruff and honest confidence for most of the way through, before reaching that inevitable point where the story wants too much to hold its subject's hand. It's telling that this is where the movie slows down considerably, as if it's just finishing collecting its dramatic weight prior to depositing it before the audience for evaluation. When the film is over, you may appreciate the depiction of Ray Charles as a very identifiable human being; you may not, however, feel you've watched a story you haven't heard some variation of before.
Mention must be made of Jamie Foxx's performance, of course. Between Ray and Collateral, Foxx has successfully established a strong acting presence -- he's making his voice heard. Yet, ironically, his voice in Ray is perhaps the movie's most jarring element. Foxx's speaking voice is high compared to the real Charles's, and, although Foxx does some of his own singing in the more intimate scenes, Charles's voice is used for the major performances, and the tonal difference becomes highlighted. It's a bit of a blemish, but in all other ways, Foxx measures up to the task of being Ray Charles. His performance comes across as convincing and encompassing, most notably in body movement and expression, and particularly when performing at the piano. And at times, from certain angles, he looks just like Charles. With the small exception of the voice, Foxx's casting seems truly inspired.
All of the casting is solid here, with a welcome, primarily African-American cast. Regina King, Kerry Washington, and especially Sharon Warren are all wonderful. They lend strength to a movie that recognizes and highlights its supporting elements, from the rollicking music to a pace that's fast enough to make the first two hours go by without viewers feeling their length. And although this glittery film doesn't really break any new ground, it's still a nice tribute to a man who did.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements.)
(Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.)