In the perpetually (and deceptively) smiling visage of Ray Charles, Universal landed the award season trifecta. It also landed the ultimate musical biopic, one absolutely prime for its boilerplate, by-the-numbers approach to handling the lives of extraordinary figures.
Here was a man who triumphed over not only racism and shady business partners, but a dirt-poor upbringing in the Georgia clay, and to boot, he'd been blind since he was a child. And he lost a brother to drowning, which he witnessed and left him feeling guilty for decades. Which drove him further.
And he was orphaned as a teen. And he learned to operate as a blind man without a seeing-eye dog or a cane. And he fathered 12 children with five women. And he cheated on his long-suffering wife with as much greed and enthusiasm as he brought to his revolutionary music. As the man's legend tells it, the Raelettes, his backup singers, got their name from their tendency to "let Ray."
So this man was no saint, and for the purposes of a movie, he didn't have to be. All he had to do, as far as Hollywood tradition goes, was triumph over his demons in an orderly fashion. The life of Ray Charles, reduced to this hollow outline, is the peaks-and-valleys life story Hollywood loves.
If he's down, he'll be up, and vice versa, with all contradictions resolved for that inevitable final ascendancy. Taylor Hackford's Ray sticks with this dutifully and unimaginatively. It plays like a lesson in making a prestige picture; that is, when it's not playing like a lesson in the mechanics of movie biographies themselves. And yet in a town always insatiably anxious to send another triumph over adversity through the Oscar night sausage mill, why did Ray arrive so late?
Too late, of course, for Charles himself, who died in June. It took Hackford at least 15 years to get this giant onto the big screen. Every studio in Hollywood suggested he make a miniseries instead - and while that's the usual advice a filmmaker hears when he sets out to make a biography of a famous black figure, I think I can understand why Hackford had this uphill battle.
Hackford, who made a number of genial, bland music films such as La Bamba, appreciates Charles; he probably owns all of his records and everything. But Hackford doesn't understand what makes Charles special, what made his fusion of country, R&B, and early rock and roll so unique and fire-catching that there really was no other performer who tore apart genres and conventions the way he did. There are no real heirs to the man's legacy. No true original has many imitators. And yet this is a TV movie imitation, however lovingly handled. Ray is honey-coated, honest, expertly acted, straightforward, thoughtful, tasteful, passionate, packed wall-to-wall with soulful music that sounds big and bold - and without question, it's a serious and ambitious attempt to pay tribute to an American pioneer.
What Ray isn't, on the other hand, is especially interesting. I found myself tapping my foot almost as often as its subject, who would hunch over his piano, leading his band with a simple instruction: "Watch my shoulder and watch my foot." But details like that can go a long way. When Raelette Margie Hendricks (Regina King) learns Ray is never going to leave his wife, listen to the hurt in her voice. Pay attention to the way Charles, who can't see her, detects a slight change in her tone, how he presses forward without pity, how the scene would have been a show-stopper in a stage production. These musical numbers are so energized, if they had been cut from their generic framework and edited into their own film, it might have made more sense to have just let Ray become a Broadway revue, a kind of updated Jelly's Last Jam. And that's thanks to Jamie Foxx.
If ever a performance transcended mediocre surroundings, it's this one. A lot is being made of how uncanny his impersonation is. This is a disservice to Foxx, who leaps to A-list with this role. Impersonation is about the surface and Foxx goes so far behind it, burrows so deeply into what the man was about, he manages the sensation that you're watching Charles himself - and not just an actor who vaguely looks like him, going through Charles' famous verbal stammering and rocking. He handles that technical stuff flawlessly: Listen to how smoothly he segues from lip-synching the actual singing voice of Charles to imitating the scruffy speaking voice of Charles. And yet the achievement is how he underplays and captures idiosyncrasies Charles used in his career.
To be fair, a decent balance is made between his personal and professional life. But only Foxx keeps Hackford's showbiz details from sinking the movie altogether. Watch how shrewd he is about his record deals, how Foxx gives us a Charles who smiled his way through bitter negotiations, rarely changing the tone of his voice, reflexively hugging himself in a passive aggressive way of charming people and squirming out of uncomfortable situations. You admire Charles for his ruthlessness but you can't help being a little put off by how removed he could make himself, and to his credit, Foxx doesn't want to be loved as much as the film does. He's no showboater.
And though the story follows Charles from childhood through his move from Atlantic Records to ABC Paramount - a move that would sand off his edges, creatively - Hackford accepts all of Charles's output as classic and his life after 1966 as settled and resolved. Hackford doesn't seem to trust us to take genius for the sloppiness it can be. So this is one of those movies where the hit songs are not the result of craft or thought, but the spontaneous result of a mistake. Ray has to fill time in a club? He invents the call-and-response of "What'd I Say?" Ray and Margie get into a fight? Alas, "Hit the Road, Jack" (which Charles didn't write) gets penned on the spot.
Watching Ray, you realize the best thing to happen to biographical films - since, say, Ed Wood in 1994 - was the move away from Great Men. That chilly leather-bound Great-Leaders-of-the-World approach to the arc of the lives of the rich and famous tended to leave no one surprised. They might have won awards but these films are not particularly loved by anyone but lazy history students, for whom a tepid Oliver Stone biography of Nixon is better than reading the guy's memoirs.
Ray, for example, finds a rushed third act in the man's heroin addiction and cold-turkey recovery, which I've never considered his triumph. And to end with a ceremony before the Georgia legislature, as if governmental acknowledgement of great art is the ultimate compliment? Ray Charles died of liver disease. He divorced his wife. He drank steadily in his remaining years. That's not what he's about either. But great art doesn't require the shape of a great life. And that's the shame about Ray.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org