from the director of “proof of life” comes…maybe that’s not the best way to start a review of a film i actually liked. okay…
biopics are a difficult lot. stone’s “doors” was okay, mann’s “ali” was unimpressive, harris’ “pollock” was stock…the problem with biopics is that capturing a real person’s life in an honest way, and finding someone decent to portray them, is usually just too hard. that brings me to jamie foxx. i basically said in my review of collateral that jamie foxx was officially a good actor, and this film will make others realize this. on npr the other day they had a film “expert” who was talking about the possibility of foxx winning an academy award. he said that foxx looked good, but didn’t sing his own stuff and that best actor/actress nominees in the past haven’t won when they lip-synched through the singing. he cited natalie wood in west side story who didn’t win because she didn’t sing herself. i think the major difference between past performances and this one is that ray charles is a real person and he was still alive during the filming of the movie. in other words, i don’t think you can fault foxx’s performance at all. plus he’s got the public sympathy and the cripple card (think rain man, my left foot, etc.) so i’d bet on foxx, barring something great in the next couple months. regina king also turns in a good, powerful performance.
the film created several pretty inspiring moments. there was one scene in which charles had to fill twenty more minutes to complete his part of a contract. on the fly he creates another hit song. i don’t know if it was a film contrivance or a reality, but it felt more like the former. at the same time it was one i was willing to roll with because it felt like charles really was that much of a genius. another similar scene came when his mistress broke us with him, which immediately led to him writing “hit the road jack” in her presence. it felt like an amazingly inspired moment, to turn that pain into one of the most popular songs in his catalog, right there on the spot. again, this was probably more a film contrivance than a portrayal of fact, but it felt right enough to roll with it.
charles’ music was contextualized by hackford in a more meaningful way than i expected, or have seen from similar films. every song has a story and hackford reinforces this idea with judicious cross-cutting between the performance of a song, and the aspect of charles’ life that inspired it. it elevated the meaning of the music and broke up the obligatory performance sequences; a nice touch.
the film begins with charles in the 1950s, he’s already blind and about to hit the road to find his first job. his formative years are retold in fragments as we follow him through his first few jobs. hackford employs a different film stock and look to signify the flashback. colors are brighter, but the film is more grainy, like 16mm film or something. i liked this technique of telling the story of his becoming blind and the death of his brother, more than starting chronologically. hackford shows us effect and then cause, and it works well. we get to know who charles is, and then why he’s that way.
the film isn’t entirely a hagiography either, and that’s extremely important with films like this. we see charles, warts and all. we see his fight with drugs, his adultery, and we see the negative effects (on his family) of his obsession with music.
without a doubt, the worst part of the film is its ending. like ali, ray doesn’t quite know how to end. in ali it’s a freeze frame after the rumble in the jungle and the film is over. in ray it’s a text epilogue accompanied by photos of the real ray charles. it basically says that for the next forty years ray charles kept making music and was a good guy. it comes off as a bit awkward and a little precious. i generally don’t dig academy bait like this, but they did a good job with this one. ray charles’ story is compelling and moving; the film didn’t get in the way of that too much, and hammed it up a bit (within reason) when it got the opportunity. it’s sometimes said that a script is so good that not even a good director could ruin it. the idea is that “good” directors sometimes interject themselves into a picture too much, thus ruining decent screenplays. in this case hackford demonstrated a decent sense for when to let the story tell itself. hopefully when they make a film about johnny cash it’s equally well done.Watched in theater