Do What It Do
Taylor Hackford, USA, 2004
Posted: November 1,
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
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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