“Don’t jive me, man!”
And Taylor Hackford certainly didn’t. This is a “warts and all” biopic that, while it may not totally deserve it’s spot in the Best Picture category of the Oscars, is a very good film. Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx in a heartbreakingly real performance…it’s hard to know where Ray begins and Jamie ends) did a lot in his lifetime. He changed music forever. He bent and eventually broke the lines between the races. He mixed gospel and the “devil’s music.” He womanized and did heroin. And he found his soul in the arms of one woman and the death of another. And all of that is here in Hackford’s heart-wrenching film about the music icon.
From the time he was a young boy seeing his younger brother drown Ray had a rough life. He was dirt poor and blind from glaucoma by seven. His mother (Sharon Warren) was a tough, but loving woman who wouldn’t coddle to her newly blind son. She wanted him to be able to live on his own, so she would teach him once, help him twice, but by the third time he had to do it on his own. Even when it hurt her to her soul to see him fall, she knew that it was the only way he would become independent.
Years went by and Ray learned how to play the piano (he actually started before he went blind) and met his future wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), who was a singer in one of his favorite gospel groups in Houston. But he couldn’t quite keep it in his pants, so he had his share of ladies, including Raelette Margie Hendricks (Regina King), who ended up being the muse for many of his songs and a soloist on a few more.
The years of heroin and sleeping around do eventually catch up to Ray, but he always keeps his dignity. And a lot of his friends stick with him for most of his career. Of course, some are pushed away by the hard man that Ray becomes later in life. He was not an easy man to work with at all and he only got harder as the years went by.
Every performance in this film is great. From Jamie’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the piano/soul god to Curtis Armstrong as Atlantic producer Ahmet Ertegun. (Yes, Booger puts in a GREAT performance.) Watch for Larenz Tate as future production god Quincy Jones.
So if I like this movie so much, why is it that I don’t think it’s worth a Best Picture spot? Well, for some reason the film seemed very distanced to me. The parts that I would think that I would be most affected by didn’t affect me very much. Usually if you put a kid in trouble or kill a kid in a movie I’m a mess. But when Ray’s little brother died I just kind of thought, “Aw. How sad. I guess that would fuck him up.” But I was strangely unmoved. Call me a hard-hearted asshole, but I couldn’t well up the emotion that the filmmakers obviously wanted me to gush out with.
And that was the problem with much of the film. In fact, the only time I felt emotional attachment was at the very end where they show real pictures of Ray ending with a picture taken within the last year of his life at a performance and they put the years of his life on the screen. THAT hit me. Eight little digits. Everything else was, well, just a movie.
But, as I said, it was a GREAT movie with amazing performances. If you have ever had any interest in Ray Charles or soul music (which you should, you philistine), watch this movie. Hell, if you’ve ever been moved by music, see this movie. You’ll learn where it all came from.
As a side note, Ray actually did “see” this movie and he loved it. He said that every bit of it was exactly the way it went down. I’m glad he was able to appreciate it on some level and that it got his seal of approval before he died. I would have hated for him to work so hard on getting it made just to die before it was even finished.
Now, go out and buy all the Ray Charles albums you can. They’re worth it.