Ray (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

At the time I checked the IMDb page for Ray, the lead comment said, "Great performances and music squandered in mediocre story."

That is all sort of true, but it seems to me that it really lends the wrong perspective on the matter. If you have great performances and a couple hours of Ray Charles music, is the story really that important? Can that really be called "squandering"? C'mon, now, really?

And when you're talking about performances, the lead performance by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles is not merely great. It is one of those achievements so triumphant that it immediately renders all the annual competitions meaningless, and wins by acclamation. This is the second straight year we have been privileged to see one of those performances which are only supposed to occur about once per generation. Last year Charlize Theron turned in her uncanny performance in Monster. This year, Jamie. Just as it was with Theron last year, if Jamie does not win the Oscar, the Academy should immediately be disbanded, and a new, more sensible organization should be built upon its ruins.

Take away the story completely, and you could watch a two hour Ray Charles concert with a little back-story, right? Well that is exactly what you get. I'm telling you that Jamie Foxx is not even in this movie. It is Ray Charles who appears as himself. From the moment Jamie totters into view, there is never any doubt in your mind that you are watching Ray Charles as a young man: the piano fingering, the way he moves, the walk, the voice, every mannerism. Even the face seems to be Ray's face. Of course, the great man did sing 90% of the music himself, and there is only one Ray Charles, but on those occasions when Jamie filled in some singing, the transition was completely flawless, and Jamie's fingering was so perfect that the film's director had far more options than are normally available in a musical biopic - he was able to use any camera angle he chose at any time, because if Jamie's fingering comes into view, you can be sure it is correct. (Jamie studied the piano in his school days, and he also worked directly with Ray Charles to get the details right.)

Hats off to Double-X. He has an immeasurable depth of musical talent to go with his acting talent. Of course, it would be easy to assume he pulled this all off on talent alone, but that is not so. He worked his share of 16 hour days (and, according to the DVD special features, even some 23 hour days) to get everything exactly right, and he actually played all the scenes blind. Let me be sure you understand what I am saying. He was not just pretending to be blind behind some glasses. He was blind. The crew created the make-up so that Jamie could not see.

While faithful to the facts of Ray's life, the story is not especially intriguing. It is a by-the-numbers biopic which hits upon too many details to develop anything with much depth, but it has some very strong positives:

1. The fifties and sixties are evoked perfectly.

2. I was impressed by the way the director chose to portray Ray's childhood memories with highly saturated representations of too-vivid colors, remembered as a once-sighted blind man might have remembered colors from the dimly-remembered days when he could see. (Ray was not fully blind until about age nine.) If I tell you that Ray was always haunted by the drowning death of his brother when they were both small children, and that the death continually came back to him throughout the film in dreams and hallucinations about death and water, you may think that the device sounds artificial, and yet I did not find it unnatural or self-indulgent in the course of the movie. It may be a heavy-handed device, but the director made it work

3. The story is the truth. Ray is portrayed as a womanizer and a junkie. He can be emotionally shallow, disloyal, and cold to his friends, and he often lets ruthless ambition and musical perfectionism come between him and his friends and family.

4. It makes the point that Ray was a cripple in some ways (his heroin addiction, e.g.), but his blindness was not one of them. In fact, as the credits were rolling, I was wondering if Ray's blindness was a gift rather than a handicap. Would he have been so driven if he had not been blind? Would he have been so completely at one with sound if he had also had his sight? In a way, you can argue that Ray's "handicap" was similar to John Nash's in "A Beautiful Mind" in that in both cases the men were geniuses because of their unique challenges, not in spite of them. If John Nash had not been able to see patterns that others could not, would he have been a great mathematician? If Ray had not trained himself to hear what others could not, would he have been a musical genius?

I want to point out some very fine features on the DVD

First, while the movie itself only shows appropriate excerpts from various Ray Charles songs, the director actually filmed complete performances of nine songs. If you are irritated by the fact that the movie cuts away just when you're really getting into the songs, you'll be able to get your fix and sing or dance along to the special features.

Second, the discs include many interesting features on how the film was made. I watched all of them, and enjoyed just about everything, but the one I want to bring to your attention is some footage of a very old Ray Charles, obviously not in great health but still exuberant about music, teaching Jamie to play like Ray. Imagine yourself in Jamie's shoes - trying to get it, failing, failing again, getting frustrated, then failing again right in front of the great Ray Charles himself. Ray was a man who was generous with praise, but withering with criticism when things were not right. Jamie got more frustrated, failed yet again, and then everything fell into place and Ray himself said "I think the boy's got it!", obviously with great delight. I don't envy Jamie's incredible talent, but I really do envy his possession of that moment. It has to be a greater moment than the rest of us will ever know.

Even if you don't find the biography to be all that engaging, well, so what? It's good enough to carry the Jamie/Ray concert. My dad and I once drove through a blizzard for hours to see Ray Charles perform in concert. Today I got to see Ray play from the comfort of my living room, and he even got a few decades younger.

If only my dad had lived to see this movie with me!



  • Original theatrical version and extended version of film with 14 deleted scenes not shown in theaters
  • Stepping into the Part Featurette
  • Ray Remembered Featurette
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • 9 additional complete and uncut musical performances
  • Soul Mates featurette
  • A Filmmakers Journey
  • Academy Special
  • The Women of Ray
  • The Filmakers' Journey
  • Ray: An American Story
  • Booklet
  • Two disc limited edition set


Aunjanue Ellis, as Mary Ann Fisher, shows a breast in a sex scene with Jamie/Ray

The Critics Vote ...

  • No consensus from the super panel. James Berardinelli was unimpressed and awarded 2/4, Roger Ebert was very impressed and awarded the full 4/4, BBC was in between the two with 4/5

  • It was nominated for six Oscars, including some very major ones (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor). Jamie Foxx won the Golden Globe for the best performance by an actor in a musical or comedy, and the Best Actor Oscar.

The People Vote ...

  • movies.yahoo.com. Yahoo voters call it an A-, and Yahoo estimates that the average critical appraisal is a B+. The site also has lots of special features, clips, and the trailer.

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $40 million for production. It has been a modest hit. The box office is about $73 million as I write this, but it is still adding to that total and is still in 500 theaters even though the DVD is already out!
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B. Even if you don't like the story at all, there is still one of the greatest acting performances every recorded on film, and a two hour Ray Charles concert. Is anything more really necessary?

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