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Thursday, 01 February 2007

Image“Ray” is an ideal subject for a high-definition DVD release. It is, of course, full of music, and the sound recording here is excellent. It’s also a period piece, which means that everything is designed for the film, so there’s an automatic emphasis on detail provided by hi-def. Furthermore, the extras are numerous and interesting, the commentary track is way above average, and the documentaries are well-produced even if, as common with Universal DVD releases, somewhat repetitious.

“Ray” is not as exceptional as Ray Charles, its subject—how could it be?—but it’s a terrific movie biography, engrossing and involving for its entire two and a half hour length. The time slides by so gracefully that at the end you’re likely to wish it were even longer; partly because it comes to a surprisingly abrupt end, thirty years before Ray Charles died.

Ray Charles died after the film was finished but before it was released. For fifteen years, Taylor Hackford, the director, tried to bring Charles’ story to the screen—and he had the assistance of Ray Charles all along the way. In his Oscar-winning role as Charles, Jamie Foxx is nothing less than perfect—one of the best biopic performances ever—and he too met and worked with Ray Charles.

For all the charm and ingratiating ways of Ray Charles, he was a tough businessman—as the movie depicts—and I’m sure nothing got into this movie that he didn’t approve. In one sense, that’s surprising, because it really is a warts-and-all depiction of his life. It deals straightforwardly with his less admirable traits, such as his drug addiction, womanizing and brusque parting from people who had worked for and with him for years. But still, the movie is immensely favorable toward him; just by showing his brilliance as a performer it could hardly be else. He was amazingly courageous—how many blind people do you know who never used a cane, never had a seeing-eye dog?—and amazingly creative. He blended jazz with gospel, later daringly chose to sing country music, previously the province of white performers. Some country stars today say Ray Charles was the best thing ever to happen to country music. But always, foremost, he was his own man, doing whatever he chose to do in his own distinctive way. He seems to actually have been the genius his reputation has labeled him as. In a breathtaking scene, we see Ray improvise “What’d I Say,” one of his greatest numbers.

More than in any other movie biography that I’ve seen, Foxx melds totally into his role. He becomes Ray Charles. We usually hear Charles’ own voice in the songs, though a couple of times it’s really Jamie Foxx we’re hearing. Foxx gets all the details right: the sensual swaying at the piano keyboard, the other kind of swaying when he walks. Ray always looked like he was about to bump into something, but the swaying actually prevented that happening: he was his own cane. In the documentaries, Charles’ son admits that on set sometimes, he had the uncanny feeling that Jamie Foxx actually was his father.

James L. White, who’s African-American, wrote the screenplay from a screen story he cowrote with director Taylor Hackford, who’s white. The movie hits the high and low points of Ray Charles’ life and career—the drugs, the women, the racism, the unusual shifts in creative direction, his clashes with managers, record company owners and others. Much of the focus is on his relationships with three women, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), whom he marries, and Margie Hendricks (Regina King) and Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis), two of the “Raeletts,” his trio of backup singers. When Ray comes on to them in his particular way—he strokes their wrists, convinced a beautiful wrist means a beautiful woman—one of them wryly ask if he chose that name because they “let Ray” do what he wants.

There’s a lot of energy in these relationships; when he finally breaks off with Margie, he’s just beginning to perform “Hit the Road, Jack”—and the lyrics take on a powerful extra meaning in one of the movie’s best scenes. In the feature film, the song is truncated; in the excellent collection of full-length numbers included on the DVD, it plays out in full.

But the most important person in Ray’s life is his mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren, in her first professional acting job); she’s a tough survivor, a single mother making a living in the pink Florida countryside. Ray’s younger brother drowns in a strange accident, then—in what he regards as punishment—Ray (C.J. Saunders as a boy) slowly goes blind. The film is laced with flashbacks to Ray’s childhood; we see his mother’s strength and foresight, and Warren is excellent in these sequences. She insists he learn for himself, to use his ears as replacements for his eyes. An amazing scene involving a cricket is the emotional climax of these flashbacks, although when the boy Ray leaves for a school for the blind, it’s also deeply moving.

Hackford’s outstanding commentary track points out which scenes are fictional, and which are based directly on real life. He also explains the reasons the fictional scenes were needed—for brevity, to compress events that happened over a wide period of time, and so forth. His explanations seem honest and sincere. It’s simply an almost unavoidable aspect of biography that the movie follows much the same trajectory as other film biographies, such as “Walk the Line,” the following year’s biopic of Johnny Cash. Real lives follow similar trajectories; to alter the path would be more false than the invented scenes.

These are the facts of Ray Charles’ life, but they’re not dry and conventional; they’re tied to Ray’s vivid personality and dynamic way of performing. The movie has been scaled to this; color is very important in the Florida scenes, when Ray could still see, it’s less important later, when he cannot. The sound grows apace with the size of his venues, until in the big theater where he unveils his country-music act, we’re enveloped in the sounds of the audience and the music.

The clarity of high definition kicks in very early in “Ray:” the current Universal logo has never been so clear—you can even see details of the Earth reflected in the side of the letters UNIVERSAL. The increased definition results in increased visible texture—hats are clearly made of felt, plaster walls somehow LOOK cool; the textures of clothes are almost palpable. Coincidentally, this is a movie about a blind man, to whom touch is so important; the detail available to hi-def makes it important to us, too.

Although most of “Ray” is in naturalistic, low-key color, the scenes in the past, before Charles lost his sight, sport more intense, almost saturated, colors. Hackford felt that this gave an idea of how Ray Charles himself remembered what vision was like; he was only seven or eight when he lost his eyesight, and who sees colors more richly than a child?

Hackford’s commentary track is well-organized and informative; he is scrupulous about identifying the members of his team by name and by their function. He also narrates the unusually rich and interesting collection of deleted scenes, explaining where each went, and why it was cut. (He can be forgiven for referring to actor Warwick Davis as Warwick Dunne.)

There are three “making-of” documentaries included as extras, so it’s not surprising that some of the same footage turns up more than once. The best of these—you could skip the other two—is “An American Story,” as it’s broader and in more depth. But the best extras are, first, those deleted scenes; every one of them is interesting enough that you vaguely wish it was included in the feature as a whole. Perhaps a future director’s cut? In some of these scenes, the character of Ray Charles is somewhat darker, angrier, harsher than the film suggests, and Hackford admits those were among the reasons Universal wanted them trimmed or removed.

Secondly, the treasure trove of full-length songs. Foxx mimed to Ray Charles’ singing, so here we get the full Ray Charles effect. Hackford says more than once he envisioned “Ray” as a musical, but in musicals numbers usually play out at their full length. Here’s a good compromise. There are nine songs here, sequences filmed for but only included in the film in short form. Among the songs are “Hit the Road Jack,” “Leave My Woman Alone,” “Unchain My Heart” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” This is the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing included as an extra; I hope it’s not the last.

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