Sunday, November 07, 2004

Movie: Ray (2004)

Going into a biopic, you generally know what to expect: a towering lead performance that threatens to overwhelm the movie, a script with a complex structure meant to mask volumes of exposition, newspaper articles griping about the short shrift given to others in the main character’s life.

‘Twas ever thus, until the writing/producing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski monkeyed with the formula. They chose unconventional subjects like Ed Wood, Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman. And they dispensed with the “sweep of a man’s life” approach, limiting their focus to a few critical years. For a while, the genre seemed fresh again.

But Ray Charles simply looms too large as a cultural figure for that method to work. Taylor Hackford’s film goes the old-fashioned route, to largely positive effect. The movie occasionally falls into the biopic trap of seeming like an artifact from the era it’s depicting – the sequence showing Charles’ withdrawal from heroin addiction is right out of a ‘50s melodrama – but on the whole it’s solid big-studio filmmaking.

Jamie Foxx is every bit as good as early word indicated, nailing Charles’ reticent speech and ungainly walk, communicating volumes without using his eyes. The script by James L. White doesn’t shy away from the man’s selfish, domineering side. Charles’ music is the movie’s trump card, providing a joyous buzz that propels the film through its dull patches.

RAY runs out of air just past the two-hour mark, when it introduces a key character (Harry Lennix as Charles’ new right-hand man) at the exact moment it should start winding down. The concluding rehab sequence feels rushed, and glib psychology abounds. But overall it celebrates the man and his music in a respectful way.

The same day I saw the movie I happened to catch a few minutes of the 2003 documentary TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC on the Sundance Channel. Dowd, one of the premier recording engineers and producers, is depicted in RAY by actor Rick Gomez as the bright young man in the control booth solving everyone’s problems. The doc features interviews with Charles as well as Atlantic Records moguls Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Actors Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff did them proud.