That's why they call it the blues
Friday 21 January 2005
Taylor Hackford's biopic of Ray Charles is electrified by a powerhouse title performance and a soundtrack that almost blisters the screen with its energy, yet Ray is so very far from being great that you could weep for all its wasted effort. Like Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey's overblown tribute to Kevin Spacey - oops, that is to say Bobby Darin - this movie makes you wish you'd never known about its subject's life, so little does it enhance the achievement of his music. "Never apologise, never explain" has always struck me as an unlovely motto, but in the case of the Hollywood biopic it deserves careful consideration. Apology and explanation are a dead weight on this genre - they squeeze the life out of the drama.
In what might be the casting coup of the year, Jamie Foxx enters so deeply into character he almost becomes Ray Charles. Foxx was terrific as the hapless cab driver in Michael Mann's Collateral, but this performance reaches to another level entirely. Blind eyes hidden behind shades, he catches the expressive upward tilt of Charles's head, straining, it seems, to project that sing-song voice to some invisible witness above. Hunched at his piano, swaying from side to side, he exudes both the unwavering conviction of a natural talent and the uninhibited joy of showing it off. Charles had many struggles in his life, but self-doubt evidently wasn't one of them.
Trouble is, he seems to have doubted everybody else. As James L White's screenplay has it, Charles nurses a near-pathological suspicion that people are cheating him. This tough-nut cynicism owes something to his mother (Sharon Warren), who, we learn in flashback to a dirt-poor childhood, urges young Ray to make his own way, blind and crippled though he is. Instead of seeking pity for his disadvantages, he develops an acute sense of touch and hearing to help himself get around. Unfortunately, the iron seems to have entered his soul: having been exploited as a teenage musician, Charles begins to insist on being paid in single dollar bills, so he can count them with his own hands. Determined to be nobody's fool, he becomes an uncompromising self-seeker, using people and then abandoning them when he is offered a better deal.
He also becomes, disastrously, a junkie, and Foxx gets the jittery body language of the addict down cold. Yet however much you admire his impersonation, you have to keep suppressing a groan at the film's pedestrian pace and the banality of its storytelling links. Fair enough that Charles's philandering "on the road" is impassively detailed - he was a charmer when it served him - but Hackford uses these affairs as if they were the vital inspiration to the music. Thus, when his liaison with backing singer Margie (Regina King) is combusting, the film segues from their hot-tempered quarrel to a fiery performance of "Hit the Road Jack". Oh, so that's why he was a musical genius... At other times, his motivation is made to look absurd. When he arrives to play a concert in Atlanta, Georgia, he and his entourage emerge from their bus to find themselves right in the middle of an anti-segregation demo; as if this weren't convenient enough, he is harangued by a single individual as he walks towards the concert venue and, moved by the demonstrator's pleading, performs an actual U-turn back to the bus. Charles's stand against "Jim Crow joints", which resulted in his being banned from Georgia, was indeed courageous, but surely it could have been staged in a more realistic fashion than this.
Hackford reportedly spent 17 years trying to get this film off the ground, which only prompts amazement that in all that time he didn't find even a few alternatives to the clichés of the genre. That Hackford was collaborating on the film with Charles himself (who died last year) only compounds misgivings about its trustworthiness. Given that the film makes no bones about its subject's drug addiction, promiscuity and ruthless pragmatism, you can't help but wonder what kind of a sonofabitch he was in real life. It is the worst of both worlds, a portrayal that tells us more than we care to know while clearly compromised in its mission to "tell it like it was".
What's more,Ray gives us only half the life. Twenty minutes before the end we're still in 1965, watching Charles writhe in the agonies of heroin withdrawal. So instead of a big finale we get one of the most anticlimactic fizzles of recent memory: "Over the next 40 years," runs the screen title, "he became one of the world's most beloved entertainers." And just in case we were wondering about that bit of trouble he was having 10 minutes previously, we're assured Ray "never touched heroin again".
The film keeps reminding us of the man's boldness as a musical innovator: fed up with generic limits, he had the idea of fusing R&B with gospel, for which stroke of brilliance he was accused of blasphemy. Charles was a man who, for better and worse, moved to his own beat. A pity this movie couldn't muster a little of that independent thinking.
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