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November 18th, 2005 (12:00 am)

© 2005 D. Gordon

Although I've always known Ray Charles' music - my parents are fans, and they spun his records quite a bit when I was a kid - it wasn't until I saw the movie Ray that I realized I didn't know anything about the man. After seeing Ray - which was entertaining, I'm not sure how much things have changed.

The movie's long, clocking in at about three hours. Actually, it was too long - and not because of editing or a wordy script; it's a good chance a definitive treatment of Ray Charles would have been at least three hours. The problem is that the overall script is an ode rather than a story; we're allowed to worship at the altar for just a teensy bit. Every scene is a Pivotal Moment, every word drops as a pearl of wisdom, and every music performance is Ray's best. To its credit, the secondary theme focusing on Charles' drug addiction isn't the standard "just say no" speech, and it goes pretty far in showing just what a horror the heroin was. But the movie would have had a much greater impact if the business decisions and the music reflected the same level of realism as the heroin.

This doesn't mean that the film lacked stellar moments. Jamie Foxx is amazing enough that it was hard to remember that we weren't watching Ray Charles. Ray's childhood comes out in flashbacks shot in vivid reds and greens, underlining the time when Ray could still see (although life was still full of tragedy for a seven-year-old). Maybe the most striking part of the film was the scenes showing Ray going cold-turkey through heroin withdrawal: they captured the pain, the sweat, the hallucinations, the other issues that the heroin masked, mixing them with the vivid colors of the flashbacks and just enough words to clarify the point. If the rest of the movie had been at this level - well, maybe it wouldn't have been a Hollywood movie anymore, but it would have been miles above (and defining the term "Oscar contender").

And how can I forget the music? Jaime Foxx is reputed to be a classically trained pianist, but except for two segments, the music is Ray Charles itself. It's all the songs you've heard, put into context of the events around them. The music is crisp and cool, the details down to the colors on the backups' dresses make it even more alive, and it's Ray Charles. Get up and dance in the aisles, people. And as I listened, I realized just how much of a visionary Ray Charles was; there are traces of Ray's influences all over music (ever listen to I Feel Fine?)

It's not clear how much of the movie was straight fact and how much dramatized for the story. (Ray Charles had 12 kids, but only four make any appearance.) That's the real missed opportunity in the film: I'm still not sure how much I know about Ray Charles. He was obviously talented, and obviously ambitious - but what else was he? I'm thinking that a straight biography is in order.

And there were a few continuity errors. Not absolutely glaring, but the kind of thing that's basic and sloppy.

So, Ray - a flawed gem, ups and downs, but worth a look-see.