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Do What It Do



Taylor Hackford, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.0



Posted: November 1, 2004

By Laurence Station

Biopics of musicians are tricky beasts. If you're dealing with an artist who died young, there's a built-in sense of loss, a "what never will be" cache of unfulfilled promise. However, despite custom-made dramatic payoffs, even these are hit (The Buddy Holly Story) or miss (The Doors). When dealing with an artist who overcame tremendous hardships, yet persevered to make a mint and die past retirement age, beloved and contented, the dramatic possibilities are far less obvious. It ultimately comes down to what to leave in and what to gloss over.

In tackling the near three-quarter-century life of recently departed entertainer and soul innovator Ray Charles, Taylor Hackford decides to cover all the bases (childhood, career, and an inexplicable final four decades condensed into a few minutes of adulation and tributes). Such a wide canvas, stretched across a scant two-and-a-half hour running time, can't help but be painted with broad strokes. Which regrettably leaves shading and detail absent from the completed work.

Hackford starts Ray with the beginning of Charles' career in the late 1940s and a bus trip from Florida to Seattle, utilizing painfully instructive flashbacks throughout to justify Charles' subsequent descent into heroin addiction and exhaustive cheating on his wife. Jamie Foxx plays the adult Ray, and clearly has the man's physical and vocal tics down pat. What could become caricature, especially since he can't use his eyes to convey emotion, is surmounted by Foxx's obvious dedication and appreciation for the role he's playing -- there's a real empathy here that enables not so much a channeling of Charles as a living, breathing tribute to a great performer.

Part of Ray's problem, however, is that the twin tragedies of Charles' life -- watching his young brother drown in a wash basin and losing his sight -- are constantly referenced as we see the otherwise successful Ray fall prey to the two-headed cliché of the music business: sex and drugs. It's as if Hackford understood that the long-known realities of Ray's addiction and fathering a child out of wedlock couldn't be dismissed in this affectionate tribute, so what better way to soften the impact than repeatedly harp on that defining period of his youth as a blanket justification for whatever faults the adult might have had?

In that respect, Ray fails to reveal the complexities of the man. The music, however, is spot-on, which, considering the source, would be pretty hard to screw up. Ray shines as we watch performances of Charles standards like "Doin' the Mess Around," "Unchain My Heart," "Georgia on My Mind," "Hit the Road, Jack," and the epic-length "What'd I Say."

Unsurprisingly, Ray's home life is dull compared to when he's on the road with the band. Kerry Washington, as Della Charles, is stuck in the thankless role of Charles' faithful spouse and mother of his children, who spends the majority of the film admonishing him for never being around and refusing to address his heroin problem. Hackford wisely keeps Ray on the road and in the studio. Regina King, as backup singer Margie Hendrix (the mother of Charles' out-of-wedlock son), has the most to work with (aside from Foxx, of course), and delivers a knockout performance as the classic "other woman" who will never be Mrs. Ray Charles.

Charles kicked his addiction in the '60s, and that's where Ray stops. He may have been a junkie, the film seems to say, but he's clean now, so all is forgiven. Fast-forward over roughly half his adult life, watch his home state of Georgia embrace him, and say goodnight. Clearly, pacing is not one of Ray's strong suits. But we do spend the majority of the film watching Charles compose and perform, work out his routines and make some of the greatest music of the 20th century. Which means that the soundtrack will undoubtedly be better than the movie.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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