Review Date: 11.09.04
Taylor Hackford directs Ray, the biopic about the life and music of the late Ray Charles Robinson, who was born in 1930 and died this summer, after having been closely involved in the making of this film. The movie's playing at Green Valley Cinema, Santa Cruz Cinema 9, Scotts Valley Cinema and the 41st Avenue Playhouse.
The film is a whopping two and a half hours long and should have had many of its scenes edited down, even as its songs should not have been shortened as much as they were (the story ends in 1966 when he kicks his heroin habit, with a couple of highlights from his post-60s career). More music, a bit less story would have been the proper recipe here. And yet, oddly, some aspects of Ray Charles's motivations, psyche, genius, get left under-explained.
Jamie Foxx is completely perfect, so much so that one forgets that it is not Ray up there, and one even longs for the Ray Charles whose handsome physical appeal matched the irresistible sexiness of his music and lyrics. In fact, everyone does a pretty good acting job in this movie: Kerry Washington plays Della Bea, Ray's wife, with a quiet dignity that lets you know why he picked her to marry instead of one of the very many lovers he had during his long career. Regina King plays Margie, one of the Raelettes with whom Charles had a long affair and who also had one of his children (he apparently had many). There are others hovering in the margins-Oberon, the dwarf MC, played by Warwick David, who clues Ray in to how he's being ripped off and gives him his initial ticket to success; Larenz Tate, who plays Quincy Jones, Ray's first musical contact in Seattle, where he goes to seek fame and fortune after growing up in Florida, inspired and pushed away by his all-too-stereotypically saintly long-suffering mother, Aretha Robinson (played by Sharon Warren); and, finally, the reps at Atlantic Records, especially Ahmet Ertegun (played by Curtis Armstrong), who receives extravagantly sympathetic treatment as a music executive who really appreciates Ray's genius, understands and even loves him. These folks constitute compelling vignette-like moments in the movie, but we just don't learn enough about them.
I wasn't too thrilled that Ray Charles' heroin addiction gets explained as a kind of PTSS and lifelong guilt about his brother. Once he kicks the habit he is, of course, forgiven. But I did love the way the movie wants to teach us about Ray's music, following his various genres and styles, explaining what made him unusual, thrilling, original, from his early capacity to imitate others perfectly, to his enthusiastic embrace of R & B's rock spirit, to the scandalous combination of gospel and R&B that produced some of his sexiest tunes, to his big sound orchestration facilitated by the sell-out aspect of his desertion of Atlantic and signing on to ABC Paramount, to, finally, his nostalgic attachment to country and western, a genre taboo for most Black musicians of the time. The movie also does justice to the period, with its lovely sets, costumes, and atmospheric effects. It demonstrates Charles' shrewd business sense and even reminds us, surprisingly, that Ray Charles took a stand for civil rights by refusing to play in Georgia during Jim Crow. In one of the late scenes in the movie, we see the Georgia State Assembly adopting "Georgia On My Mind" as the official state song and extending a public apology to Charles for having banned him from performing there.
For all its shortcomings, this is a movie that fittingly honors an amazing African American musician/performer by handling the various aspects of his life with just the right light but serious touch. One senses the control of the subject of this biography-he's just too ethical to be believed-but one forgives it, since it is too easy to tell damaging stories about flawed geniuses, especially when they are Black. And the music-all Ray Charles, all the time-is magnificent. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.