Synopsis & Analysis
The film's narrative begins with the artist's departure from his home in the Deep South at the end of the 1940s and concludes once it has taken his story to the middle of the 1960s, when he was at the height of his success, but it also incorporates several sequences depicting Charles' early childhood. The presentations of many of the various incidents occurring at these different times are nicely handled, and most are effectively related to the others. Consequently, while the film largely consists of depictions of one or another highlight from the performer's life, instead of being a mere collage of such scenes, Ray actually has a trajectory.
The director's portrayal of Charles throughout these diverse situations is also, for the most part, well done. Instead of lauding him as a noble genius, Hackford reveals many of the man's weaknesses. The viewer is thus made to see how the protagonist's emotional wounds lead him to engage in hurtful activities, such as his endless womanizing and his heroin addiction, and how these habits, in turn, affect the whole of the musician's life. Even the man's personality is is not spared. He is not transformed into a heroic, superhuman being. If anything, by mistreating the many women in his life, by often behaving roughly or obnoxiously, and by being largely incapable of seeing his own faults, the man emerges as a genuinely difficult, often exasperating individual. By showing him as such, the director manages to bring to the screen an imperfect human being, whose flaws, when exposed, allow us to feel for him and to be intrigued by his life. Had Hackford created a more idealized protagonist it is unlikely he would have been as able to arouse the moviegoer's interest.
Despite its numerous virtues, the film is deeply flawed. For one thing, it is occasionally overdone and melodramatic. Several scenes bring some aspect of the protagonist's emotional life, one or another of his conflicts, or even some fault he has to the viewer's attention with such a lack of finesse that, instead of being affecting, such sequences are actually annoying. For instance, the guilt Charles feels about the death of his younger brother, who drowned in front of him in a washing bucket when the two were boys, is clumsily revealed in a number of scenes by having the protagonist imagine some place or object filled with water and then reacting with horror to this perception.
What is more, while the story the director tells is coherent, it is too drawn out. Hackford simply tries to cover too much in his film. As a consequence, the narrative often feels superficial or rushed. Although the viewer is touched by Charles, although he is fascinated by the man and his world, he is never really able to immerse himself deeply in his existence. He usually remains a spectator and rarely becomes a participant.
Lastly, I should note that the acting in the film is, for the most part, accomplished. Foxx, however, so successfully manages to mimic Charles' mannerisms that he is absolutely fascinating to watch. The actor really does acquit himself well and gives a vibrant life to the whole of the movie.
Even though it never rises above the ordinary, Ray is a well made and engaging film that is certainly worth seeing.
Review by Keith Allen
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