October, 2004, Drama


There's a nifty little 90-or-so-minute movie struggling to get out of this bloated, 2 and a half hour-plus biography of Ray Charles--and director Taylor Hackford is to blame; his painstaking examination of the first three decades in the singer/composer's extraordinarily productive life works best when it's content to concentrate strictly on the man’s music. Since Hackford's handling of Charles' personal life never rises above a level worthy of television's Dr. Phil, it takes the soundtrack to make the film worth the price of admission--and it does, twice over.

Comedian Jamie Fox provides marvelous portrait of Charles amid the racial confines that shaped his early career. Son of a share-cropping mother and wayward father, blinded by glaucoma at 7, Charles utilized his acute sense of hearing and natural musical talents from an early age, working in small jazz clubs around the country and touring with bands headlined by then more prominent African-American musicians through the segregated "chitlin circuit" in the south.  Charles finally came to the attention of Atlantic Records, the company which gave him the creative push he needed to begin his remarkable exploration, (and fusion) of the principal sources in American popular music--jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, country & western. Along the way, Charles acquired a wife, a trio of sons, numerous lovers and a drug habit that dogged him throughout the early years of what would become a career that ended only this past summer, when he died during the making of this film.

As a director, Hackford has a tendency to mix melodrama with soap-opera romance; when it works, (An Officer and a Gentleman, White Nights) it's commercially successful if somewhat shallow; when it doesn't, (Proof Of Life, Devil's Advocate) his work collapses of its own weight. In Ray, Hackford punctuates generally fine concert and recording studio scenes with maudlin snippets from the singer's professional life, (i.e., to his wife-"don't you see baby, I'm trying to do something with the music nobody's ever done before") and recurring flashbacks to his dirt-poor childhood in segregated Florida. These are shot in luridly over-colored hues, the better to convey a past more lovingly remembered than actually lived, but these dreamlike sequences, with their garishly stylized aura, never rise above the level of pop-psychology. Hackford's repeated effort to dramatize the impact provided by the drowning-death of Charles' younger brother George on the musician's later life fails for the same reason. And in devoting so much time to Charles' drug addiction, "Ray" hop scotches through the racially turbulent 50's and 60's, using phone calls and awkward blackouts to segue from Charles on the road with a lady friend to Charles at home with his increasingly estranged family to Charles sticking yet another needle in his arm. 

There's drama enough in the music itself--palpably sensual, frequently melancholic, yet always remarkably accessible, providing audiences with a visceral connection to the remarkable talent behind it all. Seventeen years ago, Hackford directed a documentary on Chuck Berry, (Chuck Berry Hail, Hail Rock 'n Roll!) built around a single concert held in St. Louis Missouri; in it, Hackford simply presented Berry and his warts 'n all personal style, allowing him and a celebrity-studded band do the rest. The results were considerably more credible--and evocative--of that artist and his talent than this more detailed, reverential portrait.     

Fox is surrounded with a competent cast that has little to do but help keep the focus on the film's main character, with Kerry Washington and Regina King respectively providing sharply-drawn portraits of Charles' long-suffering wife and the smoldering mistress whose child he fathered during her years as lead singer of the Rayettes. The movie's production values are high--its vintage cars and wardrobes are the real thing and they're aptly punctuated with newsreel footage that smoothly conveys an accurate sense of time and place. Ray ends with the successful completion of a drug-recovery program, which provides an uplifting way to bring the film to its feel-good conclusion, but it once again accentuates Hackford's focus on the man rather than his music, ignoring the contributions Charles went on to make during the last 40 years of his career.

Despite the director's skewed sense of focus, Fox's dynamic portrait and the driving intensity of songs like "Hit The Road Jack", "What'd I Say" and "Georgia On My Mind" make this one awfully easy to like, whether you're a Ray Charles fan or not.       

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