Taylor Hackford’s Ray tells the story of musician Ray Charles, and features an inspired performance by Jamie Foxx that gets smothered in an uninspired movie.
This disappointing effort is no great surprise, given Hackford’s generally lackluster filmography of largish movies that offer all the emotional and thematic depth of a mud puddle. Ray is the sort of standard Hollywood biopic that gives biopics a bad name.
By the time the movie’s very long first third was over, I expected Thelma Ritter to step out of All About Eve and comment, “Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at his rear end.” This compendium of Charles’ trials and tribulations is done in the kind biography style of Paul Muni and William Dieterle’s 1930s films, but without their compensatory visual style and with an ungainly extra 30 minutes of running time.
I don’t expect a biopic to have the same kind of substance one might find in a good book on the same subject. There’s simply not enough time, and probably not much of an audience, for that. The best biographical films — which range from George Arliss’ historical romps to the witty conceit of Peter Glenville’s Beckett to the iconoclastic visionary realm of Ken Russell — circumvent the stock biopic form by taking a personal interpretation of the subject and anchoring that interpretation to a specific event, time or adventure.
Hackford’s film offers none of this. Instead, it’s a structural mess that feels like it wants to tell Ray’s story in real time, only to realize after 150 minutes that that’s not possible, and therefore must relegate his last 40 years to a couple of explanatory titles.
Worse, Ray doesn’t trust the viewer to “get” anything. Everything — and I mean everything — is explained and then explained again. For example, Ray can’t ever seem to say anything of note that doesn’t require a flashback to his childhood showing just why he’d say that.
Many of the films’ problems likely stem from Charles’ personal involvement in the project, which may have blunted the telling of his story. Sure, Ray touches on his on-the-road womanizing (here whittled down to one woman) and his drug use, but it does so in the most simplistic terms imaginable. Additionally, it refuses to question any of his artistic decisions. As soon as Ray snags his landmark contract with ABC/Paramount, we find him recording an uber-gooey “Georgia on My Mind,” complete with full orchestra and a syrupy choir. Any questions about this headlong bid for mainstream acceptance at the price of artistic integrity are swept away by telling us that the recording wasn’t foisted on him by his new bosses, but was Ray’s own choice. So there.
Just as bad is the Cliff Notes account of Ray taking a stand for civil rights by refusing to play a segregated concert in Georgia. Apart from a brief conversation with Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate, A Man Apart) about the “Jim Crow” states, all that’s needed is a little speechifying from a protestor to give Ray an out-of-nowhere attack of conscience.
The pity in all this stock Hollywood simplicity is that not only does it undermine Foxx’s powerhouse performance, it also obscures fine work by Kerry Washington, Regina King and Curtis Armstrong. Ray is worth your attention for these performances and Charles’ music, but not for its shapeless, simplistic script or Hackford’s flaccid filmmaking.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke