Friday, October 29, 2004

Ray

He was blind by the age of seven, but Ray Charles Robinson didn’t let that stop him from becoming one of the world’s most beloved entertainers. His mother drilled into him the idea of not letting anyone turn him into a cripple; the choice was entirely his own. What this latest film about Ray Charles shows so well is how he made that choice on a daily basis. He recognized his own talent and knew he could convince others to believe in him if he first believed in himself. Unfortunately, there wasn’t always much to believe in. Ray goes behind the success and shows the real Ray Charles, from his consistantly failing marriage to his deep-seeded drug addictions. These kinds of biographical movies often fall short because there aren’t many actors who can pull them off, but Jamie Foxx absolutely shines in the greatest performance of the year.

Ray Charles began as most great artists do, traveling from town to town looking for work. The film wastes no time showing the extraordinary challenges Ray has to face that some would take for granted, such as walking up the stairs to the bus. He demands to be paid with one-dollar bills, because he knows he’d be cheated otherwise. The color of skin isn’t the least of his struggles, either. Amidst all these challenges, though, Charles never settles for discouragment, nor mediocrity. He is always moving forward. Just as he begins making a name for himself, he realizes that his employers have been cheating him, financially. Rather than try to work it out, he immediately confronts, rebukes and leaves them, no questions asked. He knows he can’t survive without room to grow.

Everyone he comes in contact with admires his talent, but he faces the familiar ailment of not having anything unique to offer. His manager correctly identifies the problem, telling him, “No one wants another Nat King Cole.” Ray’s records are selling, nonetheless, but it’s not enough for him. During his first conversation with his future wife, she tells him, “I wonder who the real Ray Charles is.” He says he doesn’t know, but we get the sense that he doesn’t want to tell. He later writes I’ve got a woman, which reveals his true style; a completely original cross of R&B and gospel. She’s initially appalled, but can’t deny the power of his sound. He divides crowds at night clubs, causing some to shout that he’s hellbound for playing the devil’s music, but most people quickly get over it. Ray Charles’ music is just too good to pass up.

Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray is nothing short of brilliant. Foxx never goes over the top, but manages to capture all of Charles’ flair. He delivers the Ray Charles trademarks, most noticably his smile during performances, but he also gets the little things right. The way Foxx speaks, walks, and even the way he holds his arms after each song all reflect a performance designed to stand up under scrutiny. I started out watching Foxx closely to see how he would handle the role, but within minutes I forgot the performance and felt like I was watching the real Ray. Foxx doesn’t sing his own songs, but this is a wise decision on the part of the filmmakers. When striving for authenticity about a completely unique musician, who are you going to get that can sing like Ray Charles?

Ray moves back and forth between scenes of Ray’s journey through the music world and scenes of his childhood. He was raised on a farm in northern Florida where he witnessed the death of his brother at a very young age. Although Ray was clearly not to blame for his brother’s drowning, he never forgave himself. Throughout the film he periodically relives the incident, the first time being especially effective. While packing his suitcase, Ray suddnely believes the case to be filled with water. Panicked, he shuffles through his soaked shirts and closes his hand around a limp, young arm. He recoiles in terror, only to realize his imagination has gotten the best of him. These scenes say more about what’s happening inside his head than dialogue ever could.

His relationship with his wife suffers through a long series of lies and addictions. While packing a bag for him, his wife discovers a set of drug needles. She blasts Ray for keeping the secret from her, but he basically ignores her and continues with business as usual. Soon, it’s not just his wife that notices. During a recording session, a studio representative expresses his concern to Ray’s manager, to which the manager responds, “What do want me to do about it? Listen to that sound, man!” What Ray slowly realizes is how he betrayed his promise to his mother about never letting anyone turn him into a cripple; through his series of lies and addictions, he’s completely crippled himself. When one of his back-up singers becomes pregnant with his child, Ray denies her request to leave his family for her. She almost laughs and cries simultaneously, telling him in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, “Between your music, your dope, and me, you’ve already left your family, Ray.”

The tale of Ray Charles’ life is a great story, but often a sad one. It’s a story of how the people he loved never came first; his music was always more important. Ray emerges as a portrait of a real man, and this wonderfully honest portrayal doesn’t necessarily paint him as either good or bad. Ray shows Ray Charles for what he was, nothing more. It knows exactly what is needed to succeed, which is more than most films know.

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