The UnPopular Opinion: Ray

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

Earlier this year, I wrote a column lambasting the overrated BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY but that was far from my first time taking on a biopic about a musician. Hollywood loves an underdog story about the rise of a pop culture superstar from poverty or obscurity. Still, there are far more biopics that fail to tell an interesting story than succeed, yet so many of them pile up the critical acclaim and hardware at the Academy Awards. One such film is 2004's RAY starring Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning turn as the iconic Ray Charles. Much like the equally acclaimed and equally weak WALK THE LINE, RAY is absolutely one of the worst musical biopics of all time.

Like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, RAY is a film hobbled by cliche, formula, and convention. The direction by Taylor Hackford hits each and every note in the screenplay as if it were recreating scenes from any number of Ray Charles concerts or interviews. While RAY does benefit from having Jamie Foxx's singing chops utilized in several scenes, that never elevates the movie from being more than melodramatic mediocrity. As if listening to the same song over and over again, RAY lands each beat perfectly from the tragic death of Ray Charles' brother to falling in love with his first wife, to having a mistress and a child out of wedlock. We have his addiction to drugs and violent tendencies as well as the constant spectre of racism and segregation which are both eventually triumphed over. Yeah, there is nothing in RAY we have never seen before.

Biography, jamie foxx, Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Terrence Howard, larenz tate, James White, Taylor Hackford, Ray, 2004, The UnPopular Opinion

And while that formula may work to win the top trophies (I'm looking at you, GREEN BOOK), it does not make a movie great automatically. In fact, there is very little about RAY that one could call great or even good and that goes for Jamie Foxx's performance as well. Foxx, whose career trajectory took it's own formulaic turn from comedian to dramatic darling and he has yet to come close to another nomination since. Foxx, as a comedian, is an adept mimic and impressionist and that is all his portrayal of Ray Charles is: an impression. Like the recent live broadcast of an episode of The Jeffersons where Foxx did a wonderful impression of the late Sherman Helmsley, Ray Charles deserved more than what amounts to a Las Vegas stage show take on his mannerisms and singing style.

As for the rest of the cast, Regina King is the sole standout but even she is doing the best she could with limited material. Despite being distributed by Universal, RAY was completely financed by Bristol Bay Productions' Philip Anschultz. Anschultz, also owner of WaldenMedia, had prior approval from Ray Charles who read a Braille version of the script and even requested that several scenes be removed due to inaccuracy. Even so, there are still multiple moments in the timeline that do not line up with Charles' actual life. Compression and changes for dramatic effect are always anticipated in film, but maybe Charles' story was just not dramatic enough to warrant a feature film. His music certainly is iconic and worthy of being dramatized, but there is only so much you can massage before the truth just turns into melodrama.

What strikes me after each viewing of RAY is just how banal and superficial it is. Since each of the major dramatic beats is hit successfully, the film works as a bland and mediocre biopic. But it never seems like the screenwriter, director or leading man truly knew who Ray Charles was. When on stage, Foxx does a spot-on impersonation, but when he is off stage and embroiled in personal crises, it feels like Foxx was just doing what he expected On Stage Ray to do when not performing. Take Charles' heroin addiction for example. Seeing a musical legend and genius suffering the effects of drugs and then withdrawal makes his eventual redemption so much more grand, but the film never showcases that the musician continued to use alcohol and marijuana to cope with depression for the rest of his life. Why? Because how heroic is it that you substitute an illegal narcotic for other, cleaner forms of addiction.

Director Taylor Hackford, who has helmed some memorable films including AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, AGAINST ALL ODDS, and THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, has one feature film screenwriting credit to his name: RAY. It is a wonder that the man who wrote the adaptation of Ray Charles' life also helmed the film which means there was no one to question the tone, style, or depth of the film itself. While Hackford is a competent filmmaker, his resume does not boast many films that have much depth to them. Even his involvement with LA BAMBA as a producer would have hopefully rubbed off on his producton of RAY, but it seems Hackford followed in Bryan Singer's footsteps to spend more attention to mimicking on stage performances rather than telling a story that helps us know the man behind the music.

Biography, jamie foxx, Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Terrence Howard, larenz tate, James White, Taylor Hackford, Ray, 2004, The UnPopular Opinion

By the end credits, RAY fails to do anything beyond what would be considered the bare minimum. With Larenz Tate as Quincy Jones and Richard Schiff as Jerry Wexler as the only characters whom viewers may recognize outside of the context of the film, everyone else in the cast has the freedom to play with their roles and yet no one puts much energy into their performances, aside from Kerry Washington and maybe the always great Harry Lennix. RAY suffers from having not enough story to warrant a feature film and too much talent wasted on caricatures of historical figures. RAY, like last year's BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, is too focused on homage rather than telling a convincing and stirring story. That is why it should come as no surprise that in the fifteen years since it was released, RAY remains a film that not too many people quote as an example of the genre.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected] or spell it out in the comments below. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!

Source: JoBlo.com

About the Author

5919 Articles Published

Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.