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Ray Charles has been a fixture in the music industry for fifty years; his uncanny ability to play the piano without his sense of sight in conjunction with his unforgettable personality made him one of the most likeable talents in the entertainment industry. The winner of multiple Grammy Awards (including eight at this past ceremony) passed away on June 10th, 2004 of liver failure. As fate would have it his long awaited biographical film Ray was released four months later to warm receptions around the world. The film would see not only financial success but also critical acclaim earning six Oscar nominations including a win for Best Actor by the film’s star Jamie Foxx. Universal released an astounding three separate versions of the film on DVD in February of this year, including an edition for the seeing impaired, to celebrate the success of the film. We’ll be taking a look at the two-disc edition of this popular drama.

Ray takes place over a two decade time span (not including flashbacks) in which Ray Robinson (Jamie Foxx) goes from a blind musician from Georgia to an international entertainment icon. After some hardships on the local club scene, Ray is befriended by Oberon (Warwick Davis of Return of the Jedi fame) who informs him that he is being short-changed of his bands earnings. After breaking ties with his business associates, Ray finds himself with Gossie McKee (Terence Howard) who begins to get the struggling musician’s career moving in the right direction; one of the first orders of business being changing his stage name to Ray Charles, Charles being his middle name. During his ascension to stardom and success Ray met a woman named Della (Kerry Washington) whom he would go on to wed and start a family with.

The story moves along as Ray and his band start performing some of his new hits such as "What I’d Say", "Mess Around", and "I’ve Got a Woman". By the time Ray Charles was becoming a household name across the country, he fell into the same traps that most do on the way to success: drugs and women. Ray found himself with a severe heroin addiction, to which even his wife couldn’t get him to kick. Ray also was rampantly cheating on his wife, and even fathered a child with one of the female singers in his band. Not only did Ray Charles face adversity in his own life, but also found himself in the middle of the racially charged climate of the 1960s by refusing to play at venues that discriminated against blacks. The music of Ray Charles throughout the film almost acts as segways to the next chapter of his life, and does so very effectively. If there is anything that can match the quality of Foxx’s performance, it’s the music of Ray Charles.    

Ray Charles rambunctious lifestyle came to a halt when he was finally arrested and convicted of heroin possession in the mid 1960s. It is at this point where Ray faces his demons not only in the present time, but also with his mother (played by Sharon Warren) in flashbacks. When finally released from a rehab facility, he stayed clean for the rest of his days. It’s here where the story of Ray Charles this film tells ends, and does so rather abruptly. It would have been great to see Ray Charles evolve as he got older, but unfortunately it ends at his redemption.

One motif or theme which occurs from start to finish in Ray is that of trust: earning it, keeping it, betraying it, and the reluctance to give it. Our main character is at the centre of this, first and foremost because of his inability to see. In the beginning of his career, Ray learns the hard way that his business associates are short changing him and has to sever ties with some of them. He learns to trust Gossie in his first recording deals, all while trying to gain the trust of his future wife. Ironically Ray also betrays the trust of his colleagues and family through his drug use and womanizing. Trust and betrayal is such a strong motif that when linked to a person who cannot see, the emotions resonate that much deeper to the audience. Remember, the audience can see what Ray can’t, making some of his decisions that much more powerful and thus more effective to the story.

Jamie Foxx gives the performance of his life in his portrayal of Ray Charles and undeniably was deserving of his critical acclaim. What separates his work from being just a two and a half hour impersonation is through his effectiveness to bring the audience on a range of emotions with his character. Impersonations are usually only for comedic purposes: Jamie Foxx brings us on a roller coaster of feelings ranging from excitement to sadness. Not only does Foxx look strikingly similar to Mr. Charles, but he is able to integrate all of his nuances into his performance. The film truly feels like a documentary of Ray Charles, not a film about him. Between Ray and Collateral, 2004 was the year which Jamie Foxx took his career from mediocre to the sky’s limits.

Despite the riveting performance of Jamie Foxx and the wonderful music of Ray Charles, Ray falls very flat. The supporting cast’s performance is filled with overacting and predictable deliveries. Pacing issues also plague the film, with the story being tied up too quickly in comparison to the amount of time spent on the earlier portions of Charles’ life. I found myself wanting a scene to end simply to get it over with, as opposed to itching with anticipation to see what happens next. The film struggled to find an identity, and it suffered as a result. Was this a film about Ray Charles drug problem, or was it about a black man integrating with white culture? Was this film about Ray Charles coping with his childhood, or was it simply about his rise to fame? I applaud director Taylor Hackford for showing the darker portions of Ray Charles’ life but by touching on so many different aspects of it, a clear narration lacked, thus short changing the end result of the film.  

Shot initially on a 35mm and presented here in a 1:85:1 aspect ratio, the video transfer on Ray leaves much to be desired. Colour issues plague the film from start to finish, making the overall quality very flat. Most of the film has a monotone feel to it in terms of colour and although it was an intentional decision to do so in the post production of the film, the colours constantly are washed out; none of the scenes taking place in real time have a sense of depth to them because of this. Backgrounds and blacks come off particularly soft because of the colour grading that took place. Flashback scenes (ones in which Ray Charles still had his sense of sight) are saturated to the point in which colours look unnatural. The transfer may very well be an accurate representation of what the film maker intended, but it is far from appeasing to the eye. Also, from time to time the image suffers from haloing as a result of edge enhancement. The issue is one that can be lived with, but certainly one that will be noticed.
For your listening satisfaction the audio portion of Ray is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital in both English and Spanish. While there aren’t any technical imperfections to mention for the audio track, it still comes off a bit disappointing. In a film that has so many scenes taking place in night clubs and in concert halls, the surround channels should be used to their fullest extent. Unfortunately this is not the case, as we only get a couple scenes in which all the channels are used to their full potential. That said, the clarity of the sound is excellent. Dialogue and music are balanced well together, and those unforgettable Ray Charles tunes will resonate beautifully out of your system. The sound remains free of distortion and production artefacts.

The two disc edition of Ray boasts of including an extended presentation of the film in addition to the regular version, not seen in theatres. Through branching fourteen deleted or extended scenes are inserted back into the film adding almost a half hour to the film’s length. Some of the extra footage is good, such as Ray explaining to his band in the beginning the reason he moves the way he does playing the piano, but for the most part the new footage makes a slow movie drag even more. They offer too much explanation to certain plot points and only make you wish the next scene would start already. Fortunately there is the option of watching the extended cut of the film and watching the deleted scenes separately. There are also two extended musical sequences offered on the second disc which is a must-watch if you enjoy Ray Charles’ music.

Stepping Into the Part is one of three featurettes on this disc, this one looking at Jamie Foxx’s journey becoming Ray Charles. While there are some interesting behind the scenes titbits here, the shots of Foxx auditioning with Ray Charles himself is utterly priceless, and may even bring a tear to your eye. A Look Inside Ray is a short featurette that you might see played in a video store, giving quick excerpts from interviews of the cast and crew, and highlights from the film. Ray Remembered is a quick tribute to the man of the hour including quotes and interviews from personalities in the entertainment industry, including Quincy Jones and Tony Bennett. While none of these are intricate they are still worth at least one viewing, with the feature on Foxx being the most effective. A trailer for the film wraps up the promotional material on Ray.

The real treat on this set is the audio commentary by director Taylor Hackford. An endless supply of anecdotes and behind the scenes information is given throughout the duration of the film, chronicling his fifteen year journey getting Ray in theatres. Perhaps the greatest points he offers are the portions of the film which reality blends with fiction; the director explains where fabrications occur, which give a better understanding of the film. Without question this is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard and is undoubtedly worth a spin. It may have been interesting to have had some clips of interviews with Ray Charles thrown in for good measure, but Hackford’s musings suffice. Overall the set has a good amount of extras, but the behind the scenes features lack.

While I was left disappointed in the movie as a whole, there is still a lot to like about Ray as it is a very touching tribute to a fallen legend. Jamie Foxx’s performance alone makes the film worth at least a rental, with the majestic rhythms of Ray Charles music making it a must-view for film and music fans alike. I don’t have much of a desire to watch Ray over and over again, but I went out and bought the soundtrack because I certainly do have a desire to listen to this music over and over again. Combined with a fantastic commentary this two disc set is worth looking at, despite the movie not reaching its full potential.