Nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture, best director and best actor, Ray (2004) has become one of the most beloved films of the year. After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, buzz began about the film and the performance of Jamie Foxx, which has been rightly hailed as one of the best performances of the year. In fact, at month’s end I full expect Jamie Foxx to win the Academy Award for best actor for his riveting performance as the great soul legend Ray Charles. |
Universal Home Entertainment has made the bold move of releasing Ray (2004) on DVD before the Oscars later this month, perhaps in an attempt to build word of mouth for the astounding performance of Jamie Foxx. Usually Oscar winners are released on DVD after the ceremony so they can be tagged Academy Award winners, and I am a little surprised at this move because there are fringe theatres still showing Ray (2004).
A labour of love for Taylor Hackford, perhaps best known for his work on An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), the filmmaker spent fifteen years trying to get the film made. Finally on a modest budget of thirty million dollars, and with Jamie Foxx he was able to proceed. With the blessing of Ray Charles, who worked with Hackford on the film before his death last year. Hackford forged ahead. Upon seeing a rough cut of the film, Universal bought the picture and now are no doubt celebrating their good sense.
Born into poverty, with tragedy throughout his young life, Ray Charles went blind before he was seven. His brother died, and his mother worked hard to help her son overcome his disability knowing that the world was a harsh place for a blind black man. Music became his escape, his solace, and his obsession. Merging rock and roll, soul, gospel and the blues, Ray Charles found his own distinctive sound and overcame the obstacles to become a twelve time Grammy Award winner over the course of his marvelous career.
Jamie Foxx does not so much as portray Foxx as he inhabits his soul. There is no trace of Jamie Foxx in this film, he becomes Ray Charles, he lives Ray Charles, he IS Ray Charles. So good is Foxx that the rest of the picture does not quite live up to his brilliance. That is not to say the film is not strong, it is, but it is not deserving of being a best picture nominee nor should Hackford be competing for best director. There are elements of the film that are somewhat heavy handed, such as the dream sequences, yet the film comes alive during the concert scenes. Foxx lip synchs to Charles voice, but seamlessly merges his body language to match the swaying movements of the great singer. Hammering out music on the piano, the Jamie Foxx we know is gone, replaced by a Jamie Foxx channeling the spirit of Ray Charles.
Biographies are a difficult animal on screen because there is simply no way an entire life can be crammed into two hours. My issue with many screen biographies is that they play like “greatest hits” albums as opposed to capturing the essence of the character. In my opinion there have been three brilliant biographies made in the last fifteen years and they are Malcolm X (1992), Schindler’s List (1993) and Nixon (1995), each superb because they explored their subject warts and all. Hackford does not hold back in exploring the womanizing that became a part of Charles life or his long addiction to heroin, though there are moments in the film when I wondered if he was getting too sentimental on us.
For the most part, Ray (2004) is a fine biography, honest and with integrity, perhaps because Hackford so admired his subject. To his credit he does not fall into the same trap as Oliver Stone did with Jim Morrison and The Doors (1991) when Stone made a film about his hero. He was to close to the subject, could not properly distance himself from Morrison and look at him objectively. Hackford manages to keep his distance from Charles, telling his story in a non-linear manner, losing his grip perhaps only in the scenes of Charles’ childhood, which seem strained and awkward.
The DVD comes with commentary from Hackford as well as deleted scenes and a longer alternate version of the film.
Foxx is uncanny as Ray Charles giving the performance that will make him an Oscar inner this year and deservedly so. The film is fine, damn fine in fact, but not strong enough to be deserving of Oscar nods for best film and best director.