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A very good film but an even greater lead performance
on October 28, 2004
This is a very good movie that houses an exceptionally great performance by Jamie Fox as music legend Ray Charles. I must confess that as a genre, the biopic is not my favorite, especially of figures as well known as Ray Charles. We usually receive in such films distorted portraits of them, or undeserved adulation. RAY is one of the more balanced biopics I have seen. Ray Charles is presented as a musical genius who had managed to overcome physical disabilities that would have stopped most others, but it doesn't attempt to mute the serious and unflattering personal moral problems he had with drugs and his exploitative treatment of women. Nor is he revealed as a moral saint or loving person. Though pleasant with others for the most part, Ray is shown as a proud, independent, and slightly self-absorbed, a bit selfish in his treatment of women. As a result, Ray Charles emerges in the film as a believable human being, capable of unfortunate decisions, but also extraordinary music and the occasional powerful moral stand, such as when he refuses to perform in a racially segregated crowd in a venue in Georgia. In fact, the film is built around three foci: his early childhood when he witnessed the death of his younger brother and gradually lost his sight; his musical career from 1948 until the mid-1960s; and his heroin addiction. The film ends with his overcoming his heroin addiction, which also-as numerous music critics have noted--corresponds to the end of the peak of his career as a creative musical performer. Charles continued to make albums after getting off heroin, but all of the great songs that we associate with him were written and recorded while on heroin. For the last forty years of his career, his sets consisted almost entirely of songs he made famous in the fifties and early sixties, with covers of songs by other musicians. There has been a long debate as to whether his addiction somehow aided his musical creativity, but even if so, no one would have wished him to continue to endanger his health and life.
Jamie Fox will without any possible doubt receive an Oscar nomination for this performance. This is considerably more than a good impersonation of Charles: it is almost as if Fox channels him. As much as I loved other biopics of music legends like THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY or WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, throughout each I was conscious that Gary Busey was playing Buddy Holly and Angela Bassett playing Tina Turner. I completely forgot that Jamie Fox was playing Ray Charles, and despite being quite familiar with him, imagined that I was actually watching Charles onscreen. Yes, he does a killer impersonation of Charles, but he manages that first on top of that provides an amazing dramatic performance. This is great acting, not merely a great impersonation. The only performance of recent years of an actor portraying a prominent entertainer as superb as this is Robert Downey in CHAPLIN.
I also really loved the look of the film. Since it ended in the mid-1960s, the entire film was essentially a period film. There was a sense of visual veracity from beginning to end. I loved the cars, the clothes (especially the ties! - am I alone in thinking that the 1950s was the great decade for neckties?), the interior decors, the furniture. The scenes in the shanty town where Charles was a child were very effective.
The cast aside from Fox was quite strong, made up mainly of relatively unknown performers. There were many other things to enjoy about the film. Of course, the music is absolutely sensational, consisting either of remasters of original Ray Charles's recordings, or new recordings for which Charles provided the vocals. I also loved the relationship in the film between Charles and Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. There is nothing of the stereotypical relationship between artist and executives that invests so many of the stories of musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. Ertegun is rightfully remembered as one of the truly great figures in the recording industry, someone who was in it more for the music than for the money, and who treated his artists with a degree of respect that was too frequently absent. The film does a good job of presenting Charles's dilemma: ABC-Monument made him an offer that he simply couldn't refuse, yet at the same time we are all aware that Charles was, in a way, screwing Atlantic over by leaving them for ABC-Monument. All in all, I loved this warts and all approach to the subject matter. There is absolutely no question that Ray Charles was one of the most astonishing performers of the fifties and sixties, and doing all he did despite his blindness is an amazing saga. He truly was a genius, even if he was a somewhat flawed person. But you have to love the way that he managed to overcome his personal shortcomings to become not merely one of the most successful but one of the most beloved musical performers of his age.