Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 01, 2005 5:25 pm 
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Perfect mimicry, at the right time

"Biopics Set to Rule the Oscars," a headline reads. But are any of them great movies? That's a tough one. We've got J.M.Barrie in Marc Foster's touching Finding Neverland, Bobby Darren in Kevin Spacey's astonishing (and intermittently successful) ego-fest Beyond the Sea, Scorsese's dashing, high-rolling neurotic epic about Howard Hughes The Aviator, and we've got Taylor Hackford's Ray. Why is it that Ray seems the most significant as a biography? There are a number of reasons. Ray Charles died this year, for some of us far eclipsing Ronald Reagan and reminding us how great he was and will remain as a figure of American and world-wide music. He's the most endearing figure (artistically) of the lot, currently the most universally important American musical artist to be memorialized. And the movie is an unmitigated celebration of the man and his art. We can't question his importance to us or the enduring power of his recordings.

Jamie Foxx, who plays Ray Charles in the movie, has had a breakout year with three big roles in the superb Michael Mann noir Collateral, in Ray, and in the slim but winning entertainment, Breakin' All the Rules. Foxx is now a certifiable movie star. Is he going to be a great actor? We'll see. But he has the power to dominate a movie screen. His Ray rarely reveals true emotion: even when he's being bitter and combative with business associates his face is a grinning mask. Foxx's performance doesn't scream and beg for our attention the way Kevin Spacey's does or sport the flash and grandeur of diCaprio's, but it has presence. It's remarkably assured and skillful, at once forthright and self-effacing. (In the context of Spacey's Darren, you notice that.) Foxx's immitation of Ray Charles Robinson (and it is an act of mimicry, like Will Smith's Ali) -- of his voice, movements, and especially that rolling, pigeon-toed walk -- is uncannily evocative. It's a cold, detached, performance, but Ray Charles -- cut off from the world by his drugs, his blindness, his genius, his invincible will to thrive -- was a detached man. Note also that except fror a brief immaginary sequence, Foxx has to do all his acting with his eyes covered by big dark glasses.

Flashbacks show how Ray saw his younger brother drown in a washtub and failed to save him and then went blind. Is there a connection? This isn't explored, but it's made clear that abject poverty, trauma and guilt certainly fed into Charles's heroin addiction and drinking. It looks like he continued to drink and smoke marijuana after kicking heroin; but the movie paints its pictures in broad strokes, without defining what did and didn't happen, what is and isn't known as a documentary might do. The young actor who plays Ray as a boy and the actress who plays Ray's mother are both touching and good.

Much of Ray, aside from focusing on how the music came to be, is about how Charles fought to foil those who would like to cheat him, and later, to limit his artistic scope. This is heavily stressed in early scenes where a woman acts as his first "manager," making all arrangements and providing free lodging but demanding sexual favors and syphoning off most of his pay for herself. He insists on one-dollar bills so he can count them, and later this leads to conflict and spurs his departure for Seattle -- the farthest he could get from Florida where he's been all along up till now -- where he meets Quincy Jones and begins a freer musical life. His hard bargaining comes up when he goes from the small, jazz-oriented Atlantic to the big ABC-Paramount label and he demands ownership of the masters of his disks, a thing even Frank Sinatra didn't have. It's made clear that when Charles records with strings with ABC, it wasn't their choice but a new format he chose (and with fine results, as was the case with Charlie Parker). The movie doesn't go into the actual detail of all the labels Ray worked with.

What emerges in the artistic portrait is what we already know: that Ray Charles turned songs of every genre, soul, pop, gospel, or country, into gold -- and into something purely his own; a universal piece of music: a Ray Charles song. His versions of "Georgia" and "Yesterday" are equally classic and unforgettable, better than anybody else's and beyond time. Unfortunately, his "Yesterday" isn't included in the movie, which otherwise does hit most of the high spots for us. But the historical arc of the biopic also shows us that Charles wasn't always Charles but more of a Nat Cole clone when he first gained attention on the "Chitlin' Circuit" -- till he began recording with Atlantic and Ahmet Ertegun guided him to a distinctive, gutsier style beginning with stride piano and a song Ertegun himself had written. (The Beyond the Sea Bobby Darren biopic has an Ertegun (the actually Turkish Tayfun Bademsoy) who looks more like the real McCoy than Ray's Curtis Armstrong.)

The rest of the story is women and drugs, plus the childhood traumas and lessons his mamma taught him. He had many women; his wife never went on the road. He was barely present as a father. His main "road" woman was an alcoholic singer who died of a heroin overdose, a tragedy Ray shares onscreen with his wife. Ray himself became a heroin addict early on and remained one till the feds caught him returning from Canada. He was also a heavy smoker and many scenes are atmospherically wreathed in smoke.

As is usual in musical bio-pics, and this one often falls into conventional patterns, songs don't get played out in full. But the joy and rhythm of them and many of the ways they came into being, these we feel and see. Lip-synching is hardly an adequate term for the way Foxx rereates Ray Charles's facial expressions as he sings. Has anyone ever done this better? Foxx's performance may in a sense be mechanical, but it's triumphantly so. The movie stops in the Seventies, then does a quick recap of the great artist's later decades. It's not Foxx's fault -- or Taylor Hackford's either -- that Will Smith in Ali had more warmth and charisma; that's the difference between the men.

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