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RAY
Limited Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren
Director:  Taylor Hackford
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  153 Minutes
Release Date:  February 1, 2005

"If y'all want me to keep playing, let me hear you say AMEN!"

Film ****

Word is that when writer/director Taylor Hackford first approached Ray Charles about bringing the musical legend's life to the screen, he insisted that it be told completely honestly:  it should celebrate his life and talents, naturally, but it also shouldn't gloss over the less savory aspects of his experiences.  Fortunately for him, Mr. Charles agreed.

And fortunately for us, too...Ray is far and away the best music biopic I've ever seen, and I'd also easily consider it one of the best biopics of any kind overall.  It's a compelling story of a man who overcame not one, but two handicaps to become an American legend whose genius will forever be celebrated.  The continual stream of classic songs is just icing on the cake.

It boasts a central performance that too has become something of a legend.  Jamie Foxx, who got his start on In Living Color and has enjoyed success in a string of movie comedies really came into his own this year with two acclaimed bits of acting:  his supporting role opposite Tom Cruise in Collateral earned praise and end-of-the-year awards recognition, but it was his starring turn as Ray Charles that really put the world on notice that this young man had arrived.

In a role that could have easily crossed the line into parody or mere mimicry, Foxx finds the heart and soul of Charles and presents it openly for all to ponder:  his joy, his passion, his triumphs...but also his deep rooted pain, his weaknesses, and his failures.  They all add up to a complete human being that spells out the man behind the legend.

Ray Charles experienced two events in his childhood that forever changed his life.  At 5, he saw his little brother drown in a washtub while, as any little kid would be, he was paralyzed by the moment and couldn't save him.  It was an image that would weigh heavy on his heart and haunt him well through his life.  Then at age 7, he began to go irreversibly blind.

His mother (Warren), a poor but determined woman, refused to let Ray go through life as a crippled person, and taught him the tools he would need to navigate his way through a life without sight.  Ray did so well, as a matter of fact, that he never needed a cane or a guide dog for help.  He could even find his way through the streets by just counting steps and the sounds of the world around him.

But Ray had other talents, as well...namely, playing the piano and singing like nobody's business.  Though he started small in country/western bands and jazz combos, frequently doing perfect imitations of Nat King Cole, by the time he found himself in the family of indie label Atlantic Records, he was ready to find his own voice and make his mark on music history. 

With his early single "I Got a Woman", he blended rhythm and blues with gospel in an exciting new sound that would eventually be known as soul...and it delighted as many listeners who found it new and exciting as it shocked others, who found the secular use of gospel to be profane.  Later, he would take what many would consider to be a big risk but for him was a natural leap into country, which resulted in even more success.  At one point, he even helped lead the charge against the south's Jim Crow laws alongside performers like Louis Armstrong, which resulted in his banishment from Georgia for life.

That's the essential story of Ray Charles, the musician.  But Ray also explored Ray Charles, the man.  The guilt of his brother's death may have helped propel him into musical greatness, but it also may have led him down the dark road of heroin addiction.  Despite a loving wife (Washington) and a supportive family, he peppered his road life with many flings, and even took up a sort of psuedo-second relationship with his main female singer, Margie (King), who found fame and success with Charles, but whom you could also argue was eventually destroyed by her connections with him.

The film doesn't go all the way to the end of Charles' life and career, but finds a suitable ending point:  when he finally kicked his drug habit for good.  In the year's most unforgettable scene, Ray comes to terms with the demons that had haunted him all his life.  It's a beautiful screen realization, and one that cements his life as a triumph.  To top it off, we get to witness his historic return to Georgia, where the state legislature not only offered him a public apology, but made "Georgia On My Mind" their official state song.

Jamie Foxx, as mentioned, had the daunting task of really carrying and driving the story for its length, and he was more than up to the challenge.  His seeming ease at slipping into the skin of Ray Charles was almost like seeing a ghost come back to life (Charles sadly passed shortly before the film was released), and his fearlessness in exploring the tortured side of the famed musician lent an air of solid credibility to the story.  Oscar should definitely go home with him.

Ray chronicles a great American success story on many levels.  One, of course, is how a poor blind kid from Florida became one of the world's most indelible music legends, but another is simply how a troubled man with more than a share of problems overcame them all to become the person his mother always knew he could be.  Ray Charles will be forever missed, but he couldn't have asked for a more fitting memorial than this movie. 

Video ****

Universal knocks one out of the park with this terrific anamorphic transfer.  It employs a full range of visuals from shadowy nightclubs to the bright sunshine of Florida.  Colors are beautiful and well-rendered throughout, with crisp lines and sharp details all the way.  I noticed no grain or compression to mar the effect.

Audio ****

Oh, man, that music!  As my buddy Norm from the band Rush Hour Soul said, there's nothing like hearing Ray Charles' songs in 5.1.  The digital mix opens up the tunes so that they sound better than you've ever heard them before.  Dynamic range is strong, and the .1 channel keeps the bass boogying along.  Spoken words are clean and clear throughout, and the rear stage makes nice use of ambient sounds throughout.

Features ****

This is a double sided disc, with the film and commentary on one side and the other extras on the other.  On the first side, you can select either the theatrical version or the extended version...I recommend the former, just because there's no seamless branching technology employed, meaning the film pauses as it calls up each deleted scene, as well as bringing up a note icon so that you're aware of each new scene.  Besides, you can just access the deleted scenes on the second side if you wish.

The commentary track with Taylor Hackford is an extremely enjoyable listen...he has plenty to talk about, and his enthusiastic delivery will keep you a willing receptacle for all his information about envisioning the project, working with Ray Charles and Jamie Foxx, story ideas and more.  There are also some talent files on this side of the disc.

Side two has 14 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Hackford and two extended music numbers from the film, a very cool sequence that shows Jamie Foxx jamming on the blues with Ray Charles while Foxx explained how he got into the character, a very short insider featurette, a remembrance special, and a trailer.

The limited edition version has a second disc of material with introductions by Hackford and Foxx.  There are 7 extended music scenes, so you can hear the full versions of Charles' songs (in 5.1, of course), a look at the women of Ray and the actresses who played them (seeing Kerry Washington with the real Della Bea Robinson was a treat), a tribute to Charles, and a look at the filmmaker's journey in bringing the story to the screen.

This edition also has a cool package that resembles a hardcover book, with an extra booklet of full color photos.  A very nice package.

Summary:

Ray was one of the year's best and most important films, and one I enthusiastically recommend to anybody.  The more I see it, the more I love it, and the deeper my appreciation for the great Ray Charles grows.  So I humbly conclude by thanking him...not only for making the music that brings me joy, but for living the life that makes me believe I can overcome my own obstacles as well.

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