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I have always been a fan of biopics. Film is a perfect medium for portraying a person’s life in both an informative and interesting manner. Of course it is a pre-requisite that the person must be sufficiently prominent a figure in history – or at least that the life merits such regard even if the details are not commonly known to the average member of the public. Prime examples in recent cinematic history include Alexander, which was handled badly mainly thanks to a poor choice of lead, and Ali, which was absolutely superb, largely because of a perfect lead. But less well-known individuals include Jake ‘Raging Bull’ LaMotta and Erin Brokovich, both clear examples of amazing, intriguing people whose experiences we are better off knowing about. Ray Charles falls into some kind of middle category. Famous enough for us to know that he is a great musician and that he is blind, but not famous enough for anything else. The question is: does his life warrant further inspection? And here is the answer.

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Movie
The film picks up midway through the life of Ray Charles Robinson – who later changed his name to avoid being confused with the famous boxer ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson – travelling to Chicago in search of a career as a musician. Even with the odds stacked against him – he is a black man living in Post-War America where segregation, racism and prejudice are still rife – he manages to work his way up from playing in the backrooms and being cheated by his managers, to being fought over by record studios for the rights to publish his music. He becomes a legend in the music industry – ‘The Genius’ – but his life is not without troubles. Aside from the obvious (many try to take advantage of his disability) he is also a terrible philanderer and a resolute heroin addict. Although he manages to overcome many of these problems – he gets his money in single dollar denominations in order to avoid being cheated, tries to restrict his relationships to just his wife when he is at home and his girlfriend when on the road and maintains that his heroin habit does not affect his work – it is clear that things are going to eventually catch up with him. On top of all of this he is tortured by his haunted childhood, where he suffered the biggest tragedies in his life, not least the loss of his eyesight. It is an interesting, emotional voyage but, and I really hate to have to say this, it is nothing that we have not seen before. It has been done before and, to be honest, it has been done better.

In spite of this, there is one saving grace that makes the movie strangely compelling. Jamie Foxx. Recently he did a brilliant job in the excellent Michael Mann Cruise vehicle, Collateral. Here he is simply perfect as Ray Charles. Although his life is made much easier by his not having to sing, he lip-synchs amazingly and his voice and mannerisms are spot-on. Right from the start, memories of the real Ray Charles are so easily overridden by this superb portrayal. I mean, I always thought Will Smith was the perfect choice for Ali, but Jamie Foxx does an uncanny Ray Charles. It does not just take simple mimicry either, it takes an embracing of the character only a few actors have achieved over the years. The supporting cast may, more often than not, be less than well-known but they all do fantastic jobs in their roles. His wife and many girlfriends are fairly prominent figures. The former, Della Bea, coming across as warm and sweet and understanding, whilst also being one of the few people in his life who afford him the truth, is played well by Kerry Washington. And the girlfriend who stands out the most, and lasts the longest, is Margie, played by Regina King. Although these are two of the most important women in his life, one of the figures who often goes unnoticed in his life – and should not – is his mother Aretha, played powerfully by Sharon Warren. Amongst the other people he can trust (to a certain extent) are his original band members, including Fathead (Bokeem Woodbine) and Jeff (Clifton Powell), along with producer Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate). It may not be a stellar cast but they all play their parts perfectly and you may even recognise Richard Schiff (Toby from the West Wing) pop up as one of Ray's producers.

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The original songs are also superb, with the real Ray Charles’ vocal talents seamlessly integrated into the movie. The way they make some of the songs personal is also clever, for example coming from his love for his wife, or his split with one of his girlfriends. It is a smart way of incorporating the many excellent tracks. They also intelligently evolve Ray’s music from just perfectly mimicking the greats to creating a very distinctive style of his own. If you like the music then the movie can almost be watched just for that alone.

This DVD allows you to watch either one of the two versions of the film – the original theatrical version, which runs for 150 minutes as it is, and the extended version which takes it up to about three hours. Normally I would wholeheartedly advise watching the longer version of a movie – particularly if it is the director’s true version – but the footage here is not as well integrated as it could have been and largely distracts from rather than enhances your view pleasure. Still, if you can ignore the changes in picture and sound quality, and the frequent overlapping and repetition of scenes, you do get a few hidden gems, not least more music, more scenes with his different bands, more flashback sequences, more drug-taking and more background conversations. It should also be noted that the majority of the extra footage is incorporated into the first quarter of the movie, which is perhaps an argument not to watch the extended version on your first viewing of the film because it may put you off. It is a shame that it is not a better cut of the movie, mainly because it looks so damn messy, but it could have been superior if it were polished up a bit and is certainly a good way of watching the deleted scenes in their correct sequence.

Video
Ray is presented in a purposefully dated 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. Although this gives the movie a forties and fifties look, it does mean that some sequences look worse than others. They have done a great job of integrating archive footage from the relevant eras into the scene-setting shots of Chicago and the like, and this archival footage shows you just how good the rest of the transfer is in direct comparison. There is occasional grain, but it is normally insignificant enough to ignore, and for the most part the picture is detailed and clear – but there are moments of softness. I noticed little edge enhancement and other digital artifacts, while the colours, as already stated, are often faded to make the movie look dated but are still well presented with blacks that are quite solid. Overall this is quite a decent transfer.

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Audio
The main audio track is a vibrant Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that hits all the right spots. In fact, the music in particular is presented so well that only the most determined disbelievers would fail to appreciate. Ray Charles has simply never sounded better than in full six-speaker surround sound. The vocals are mostly clear and presented largely from the frontal array. Aside from the dialogue and the music, there is little more to get excited about because the mix is lacking in effects stimulation and bass. Still, the music makes up for most of that and – though I say it again – the many audio tracks all sound simply superb.

Extras
First up there is an audio commentary with the director, Taylor Hackford, who provides an insight into the real Ray Charles and what it took to capture his essence on screen. He talks about how many years it took to bring this project to a close, but how it was worth it just waiting so that they could get Jamie Foxx for the part. The second disc is where the real meat is. First up we get 14 deleted scenes, amounting to nearly thirty minutes of footage, with optional commentary by the director. These are all of the scenes reinserted into the extended edition, but it is still nice to have the option to play them separately and also hear why they were removed, although clearly the director loved them so much he wanted them back in for the DVD. Most of them should have been left out but, as already stated, an alternative cut of the movie should have been provided rather than the slightly jumbled extended version we get here which spoils most of the effect.

Next there are two extended musical scenes: Ray and The Raelettes performing “What Kind of Man Are You” and performing “Hit the Road Jack”. Totalling five minutes’ worth of extra music, these are two great tracks which are worth having in all their glory. Stepping into the Part is a ten minute featurette where we get the real Ray Charles meeting up with Jamie Foxx to learn how to play the blues. The director talks about – and you can see yourself – how Ray warms to Jamie after some grueling piano lessons. Foxx talks about his determination to play the character perfectly, whether playing the piano, getting the voice right or acting out the scenes actually with his eyes sealed shut. It is a nice featurette, with a few comments towards from both the actors and their real-life counterparts, which is a nice touch.

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Ray Remembered is a brief, four minute featurette on the genius of Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx, the real Quincy Jones and Al Green, along with the director and some of the other stars, all talk about how great he was and what an inspiration he was. It is quite a sugary little epitaph, which can occasionally encroach on how meaningful it is, particularly when you get quotes from Elton John, but you can still see a small part of how great this man was. A Look Inside Ray is basically a three minute extended trailer with some behind the scenes footage and a great deal of interview footage we have already seen, sliced up and used here again. It is an unnecessary advert for the film, proclaiming how it was endorsed by the real Ray Charles a few too many times for my liking. I think it is great if the movie can be a true tribute to Ray but it is not up to the director to go on about it. We also get a thirty-second Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Trailer for Ray, with brief snippets of many of the great tracks and a two-and-a-half-minute International Trailer for Genius: A Night for Ray Charles, the DVD of the concert dedicated to Ray Charles. It features performances from a whole bunch of people all mimicking the legend unnecessarily, but for all the Ushers and Elton Johns, you do get others like Norah Jones and even some of the old gang themselves – B.B. King (here playing with Bruce Willis!) and Al Green.

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Overall
Ray is a thoughtful, involving movie that suffers only slightly from being somewhat familiar in its storytelling. Despite this, the performances win your heart, centred on Jamie Foxx who truly deserves his awards for this role. Presentation-wise the technical specifications are solid, with a decent video presentation and a rousing audio score. Although the release comes with a whole second disc dedicated to extras, none of them seem to be as meaty as I expected – the commentary on the first disc comes up trumps but everything else seems slightly brief and overly promotional. Still, it is nice that they went to some effort, although in the end an alternative cut of the film would have been the real deal-clincher when it comes to picking up this special edition.


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