Thursday, January 7, 2010


Year 2, Day 6 - 1/6/10 - Movie #371

BEFORE: Sticking with the music bio-pic theme, and crossing a big one off the list tonight.

THE PLOT: The life and career of the legendary popular music pianist, Ray Charles.

AFTER: What I didn't realize prior to watching all these movies back-to-back was how formulaic they tend to be. I suppose it makes sense - if you watch a secret-agent film, there will be cool gadgets, narrow escapes, and a villain with a secret base willing to detail his whole plot for world domination. Watch an old slapstick comedy and you can expect pies in the face, slipping on banana peels, etc. So why expect music bio-pics to do anything different?

Which is what made "Ray" such Oscar-bait for Jamie Foxx. We see Ray Charles Robinson start from humble beginnings in the South (Oscar voters love people with humble beginnings), become a successful musician with personal problems (Oscar voters like to learn that famous people are not perfect), fall victim to substance abuse (Oscar voters love drunks and drug-addicts), all while dealing with a disability (total Oscar no-brainer...).

I don't mean to take anything away from his performance - it's amazing, and Foxx all but disappears into Ray Charles' skin. And while all the details of this man's life may be true (who am I to say?) it falls JUST short of obvious pandering to the Academy voters.

I found the bits about Charles' blindness, and his methods for dealing with it, to be one of the best things about the movie. Descriptions of how he gets around without a cane or a dog, by listening to the echoes of his shoes, was very insightful. Demanding to be paid only in $1 bills was another example - it makes sense if you think about it.

The movie also has an innovative non-linear timeline, flashing back to Ray's childhood at seemingly random times. I usually hate movies (and comic books) that do this - because it sometimes implies that the story is not strong enough to play out in order. I don't think that's the case here, and we do gain insight to Ray's background at somewhat appropriate times, but it's still a red flag for me.

Of course, the message is the music, and I didn't really know much about Ray's music, outside of owning his 2 Greatest Hits CDs. I didn't know he started out trying to sound like Nat King Cole, or how he developed his signature sound by combining gospel music with the blues. His derivation into "country" music in the early 70's now makes a little more sense as well.

My complaints are as follows: 1) The movie clocks in at over 2 1/2 hours. You can't tell me that a little more editing couldn't have improved the flow - I'm sure a few events in the man's life could have been combined or left on the cutting-room floor and you'd still have a solid, strong film. 2) Ray's girlfriends and mistresses were fairly indistinct - I had trouble keeping track of who was who (turns out he was like the Tiger Woods of the 1960's...) Since they were usually part of the "Raelettes" background singers, with similar hair and gowns, I couldn't keep them all straight - hey, maybe he couldn't either. 3) I could have done without the "Requiem For a Dream"-style footage as Ray endured going cold-turkey in rehab. You had to go "arty", didn't you?

Minor complaints, perhaps - the movie is still an impressive achievement for an actor, and possibly the ultimate in bio-pics. But I still have a few more to go...

Also starring Terrence Howard, Kerry Washington, Regina King (last seen by me in "Enemy of the State") David Krumholtz, Bokeem Woodbine (as Fathead Newman), Larenz Tate (as Quincy Jones), Richard Schiff, and Curtis "Booger" Armstrong (as Atlantic Records king-maker Ahmet Ertegun)

RATING: 7 out of 10 Wurlitzers

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