Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Movie Review - Ray [2004]

Ray, a biopic of singer Ray Charles, was one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year (or in the case of us Brits, the following year!), and it didn't disappoint. What it does do (for people like myself who have basically no knowledge of the singer apart from knowing some of his famous songs) is surprise and inform, along with entertain and, perhaps, inspire.

The thing that surprised me most about this film was its disarming candour. The frankness with which even the worst parts of Ray’s life and the least appealing aspects of his personality were portrayed was quite a shock. Somewhat like A Beautiful Mind, this movie tells the story of a genius’ battle to overcome his personal demons – though unlike mathematician John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia, Ray Charles’ demons were largely self-induced. His upbringing by his poor mother (absent father) in a shanty town with very little in the way of material possessions, a childhood tragedy (I won’t tell you what it is as that could ruin a large part of the film for you), and a medical condition leading to blindness which limited even further his educational opportunities combined to give him a very disadvantaged start in life. The story is told using a series of flashbacks (mildly annoying at first but they’re well enough defined not to be confusing), often with a childhood memory that explains something about his reaction to something as an adult in the previous scene. His mother sends him away after a time, as she can teach him no more – though she helped him from the beginning of him going blind how to use his memory to help him, and he soon learns how to use his hearing to help compensate for his lack of sight. Her parting words to him are: “don’t ever let anyone treat you like no cripple” (or words to that effect); advice that he consistently remembers through the years.

Ray faces prejudice everywhere he goes. Not only is he constantly marginalised because of being blind. Being black in 1950’s America was no easy thing and racist sentiment is everywhere, eventually leading to him being banned from ever performing in the state of Georgia (though this ends up being the site of his greatest moment years later). Much as I dislike what political correctness has become, it was very strange – and strangely uncomfortable – to hear people in the film using the word “Nigger”. Seeing the attitudes many people had just a few decades ago was quite appalling (and it’s even worse to know that there are still people today – of all colours – who have similar antipathy towards those of other races). Like everything else in the film though, this is portrayed openly and unashamedly, without any attempt to manipulate the audience. It just tells things like they were, and lets you make of it what you will. I have to admire this attitude on the filmmakers’ part since there are so many important and sensitive issues dealt with by this film that it could very easily have become manipulative drivel in the wrong hands (even if well-intentioned). Director / Co-Writer Taylor Hackford must take much of the credit for this. Similarly Ray’s heroine addiction and womanising are portrayed openly without any effort to excuse or accuse. (Anyone who can’t come to the right conclusion about these from this film probably wouldn’t understand even if you explained to them in baby talk anyway!)

Jamie Foxx, who plays Ray Charles (real name Ray Robinson, but his surname was already taken by boxer Sugar Ray Robinson so they used his middle name, Charles, instead), does an absolutely brilliant job. He’s completely believable as the troubled genius and well deserved his OSCAR nomination. All of the supporting cast put in credible performances, though to me Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun (record producer) and Kerry Washington as Della Bea Robinson (Ray’s wife) stood out to me. If even a tenth of the events of this film really happened (and there’s no reason for me to believe they didn’t), his wife must have been one hell of a woman to stand by him. Of course (and I think this isn’t giving too much away) Ray did manage to get the better of his personal demons and became one of the world’s most beloved entertainers for many years. Sadly he passed away in 2004. I wonder what he’d have made of this film? Somehow, from the character presented in Ray, I think he would have rather enjoyed it – though he would have been ashamed of some of the mistakes he made. (If any of us saw a film about ourselves, wouldn’t we too?!?) Like A Beautiful Mind, Ray is a powerful and inspirational story that no thinking person who watches will be unaffected by.

Added to this, of course, it has a brilliant soundtrack full of Ray’s best songs. The plot is well paced and holds your interest through the two and a half hours of the movie. Oh, and if you’re the sort who cries at movies… don’t forget your tissues… There were one or two questions that still lingered in my mind that the film didn't answer, but it would probably have been a 5-hour film if everyone's questions had been answered!

It’s rated 15 (UK) PG-13 (USA), mainly for the drug abuse scenes (though they actually work as an effective deterrent for any youngsters watching) and some sexuality.

A much lighter-hearted biopic of a black jazz musician is Stormy Weather, the life story of Bill Williams (stage name Bill“Bojangles” Robinson). The plot is wafer thin and just an excuse for some song and dance numbers, but it’s still fantastic entertainment.

See also my Review of 2004 Movies.

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