There are certain musicians that transcend music and become part of American culture, their unique sound may be often imitated but remains forever theirs. Ray Charles was in that rarefied strata of musical greats and now, shortly after his death a film that does justice to the man is made. Ray Charles did more than lend his name to this film; he provided almost unheard of access to his life for its production. Much to his credit his wanted his life chronicled warts and all. Charles was not born blind, he lost his sight at the age of seven just two years after one of the most defining events of his life, he witnessed the drowning death of his younger brother. This tragedy would haunt Charles for the remainder of his life. Many say that out of hardship the best music is born and in this case it certainly was true. Ray (Jamie Foxx) was not what most would consider a decent man. He often cheated on his wife, used intravenous drugs and generally pushed himself on others. The film concerns itself not only with the man and his music but his relationships. His belabored wife Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington) put up with a lot. Charles tormented her with two long term affairs, one with blues singer Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and another with the overly possessive backup singer Margie Hendricks (Regina King). The women in Charles’ life brought him his greatest joys and angst, next to his first love, music, that is. Charles was not an easy man to get along with, but his genius and passion for his art made him irresistible to these women. Charles had a unique way to size up the attractiveness of a woman, he would stroke her wrist. He had a thing for a slender, well tapered wrist, his only indication of whether he would want to add her to his conquests.
Although the film clocks in at about two and a half hours you will not be bored or distracted. The film is so well crafted and acted that you get that voyeuristic feeling of what the life of this man unfold. Charles needed to be self sufficient. He refused to use a cane or a guide dog; he went through life on his own two feet under his own guidance. One of his earliest musical influences was his meeting with a teenaged Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate). Through this association Charles becomes involved in the bar scene and begins to hone his budding musical style. This film does not avoid the foibles of his life, perhaps sensing his life was at a close he wanted to tell the whole story. He used his blindness as an asset, a boon to his womanizing and his professional associations. When African American performers where relegated to only ‘Black’ venues Charles stormed ahead breaking color barriers. He was a force of nature and a national treasure. He will be missed but this film will help his legion of fans to understand him a bit more.
Jamie Foxx came to national attention on the hit television show In Living Color. This show was not only responsible for the careers of the plethora of Wayans brothers but also Jennifer Lopez and Jim Carey. Foxx seems to channel Charles in his performance here. The trademark sway of the man, the self assured way he walked are all there. Even the way Foxx sits in front of the piano is like watching old clips of Charles’ performances. While the other performances are well done this is basically a vehicle for Foxx. Who would have thought that this man that has played the buffoon in so many films and television shows could act this well. Aunjanue Ellis also presents a stellar performance. In the scene when her character breaks up with Charles the result is not a shouting match but the song ‘Hit the Road Jack’. While this man was bigger than life the talented troupe of actors show him as a flawed, haunted individual without destroying the respect that his talent has rightfully earned him, there was a lot of love and respect that went into this film.
Taylor Hackford co-wrote and directed this bio-pic and in doing so has created a realistic albeit somewhat flawed film. While the acting is impeccable for my tastes some of the directorial decisions fell short of what this director has shown in the past. With such films as The Devil's Advocate and Dolores Claiborne on his resume Hackford resorted to a few too many tricks of the trade here. The dream sequences where out of place, the closing scenes of Charles undergoing withdrawal from his long time heroine addiction was a bit like an acid trip, disrupting the flow of the film. With this said the film still holds together and Hackford’s talent as a director manages to come through. The film is paced well, the audience is immediately drawn into the life of this rural little boy and we want to see what happens next. As Charles is shown getting more recognition for his talent we can almost see his ego growing. The lighting is excellent, setting the mood without becoming a distraction. Hackford has an eye for details and each shot is carefully planned and executed.
Universal has outdone itself with the presentation of this DVD. Released in three variations, widescreen pan & scan and limited edition, the true fan will covet the limited edition with its nine uncut musical performances and extra featurette about how the film makers approached this project. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is nothing less than stunning. You not only get the feel of being in the little dives Charles started in but the music fills the room. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is clean even with scenes that contrast light and dark elements. To the credit of Universal all editions have both the theatrical cut of the film and the extended director’s cut. Rather than making the die hard fan buy two different versions we get both. This is a trend that shows respect for the consumer and one I hope other studios take notice of. The director’s commentary ranges from the technical to found memories of working directly with Charles on this film. Some 14 deleted scenes are included as well as two uncut musical numbers. The work that Foxx had to go through to capture this man is shown in Stepping Into the Part and finally there is a tribute to the man himself. Ray Charles will never be forgotten, this is a keeper for new and old fans alike.