Review: Ray

While I was in Seattle last week, I caught a screening of Ray, the Ray Charles biopic directed by Taylor Hackford which opens at month's end.
I don't know Ray Charles's life story. When I was young, though, my dad would occasionally play his music on an old reel-to-reel, and I'd also see Charles on television, usually on Bob Hope or July 4th specials, singing America the Beautiful. I'm skeptical of the historical accuracy of most movie biographies (e.g. A Beautiful Mind) given Hollywood's distaste for truth that doesn't go down easy, but I enjoyed learning the rough sweep of Charles's life story. Others with more knowledge of his life story are better suited to address the movie's historical accuracy.
But the music...goodness, gracious. Jamie Foxx, who owns a degree in classical music, plays piano and plays it like a pro, and the vocals are provided by old Ray Charles recordings. Played over a good movie theater sound system, the soundtrack is glorious, and it will sell a lot of CDs (on the movie website, you can preview clips from some of the songs by clicking on the headphones icon in the lower right corner).
The movie is a montage of moments from his childhood and his adult life. The seeds of conflict in childhood are obvious. Charles goes blind at age seven, a huge obstacle in achieving the independence his mother wants for him (a scene where a young Charles finally learns to use his hearing reminded me of the origin of Daredevil). Later in life, the usual vices of popular musicians take hold: drugs, women, and money. Charles marries, but as his star rises, temptation overtakes him.
Still, the movie pulls its punches, and for the most part is a loving tribute to the man. It's difficult not to be seduced by Charles's soulful voice and beatific smile, reproduced with uncanny accuracy by Foxx. What makes Foxx such a suitable actor for this role is his natural warmth and charm. He has an everyman-type of humanity that comes across on screen both here and in his role in Collateral (where it was featured in perfect contrast to co-star Tom Cruise's larger-than-life intensity and celebrity; the roles could not have been reversed). Foxx practiced for this role by living in darkness, with his eyes covered for days on end. This is Foxx's star-making role, and he nails it. He's crossed over into serious leading man territory.
The movie is only partially successful in two areas. One is in the commingling of the story lines of drugs, womanizing, family, and music-making. Story lines seem to disappear for scenes on end before reappearing suddenly, in jarring fashion. Scenes of joy and sadness don't mesh as smoothly as those same feelings do in his music. Heroin use scenes (flame, surgical tubing, spoon, needle, eyes rolling back into one's head) have become a movie trope and have lost their originality and power to shock. The movie seems to drift for a long period in the middle before tying up the movie abruptly.
The second problem is with the visualization of one of particular personal demons. Charles is haunted by a tragedy from his childhood, and since Charles is blind, the moviemakers visualize his struggle to overcome it for the audience. It includes hallucinations involving water and imagined encounters with his mother and brother in places he saw before he went blind. Movies struggle to depict imagined demons, usually resorting to visual metaphors (Bruce Lee fighting a giant warrior in Dragon, Paul Bettany as imaginary friend to John Nash in A Beautiful Mind). It's difficult to think of alternative methods to document mental afflictions on screen, but the current methods still don't satisfy me.
When the movie sticks to Foxx winning people over with his music, it's entirely convincing. There are moments of wonderful humor throughout, showcasing Charles's ingenuity. And that music. Foxx has said that while he simulated blindness, he realized that the reason Charles would sway to and fro all the time was that it was easy in the darkness to nod off.
But when his music plays, I want to close my eyes and sway with a smile on my face, just like Ray. Maybe he, too, was overcome by the beauty of his own music.