The best thing about the 2004 biopic Ray is Jamie Foxx’s incredibly realistic portrayal of Ray Charles. Foxx was deservedly quite victorious during awards season that year. His mannerisms, speech, and onstage performances captured Charles with startling accuracy. Though the movie ultimately falls back on certain musical biopic cliches, Ray is a strong movie even beyond Foxx’s star turn. With the film now available on Blu-ray, there is no better time to check it out again.
Ray tracks the life and times of Ray Charles from young adulthood in the 1940s, right up to his mainstream smash hits like “Georgia On My Mind” in the ’60s. If that wasn’t already a big enough chunk of time, flashbacks to Charles’ early childhood pop up regularly. Along the way we see Charles struggling early in his career to establish his own sound. Unscrupulous business associates attempt to take advantage of Charles’ blindness. Racism runs rampant as the artist is forced to perform at segregated concerts.
Director Taylor Hackford, nominated for an Oscar for his work here, does an impressive job juggling all the material. The rush of Charles’ early career is the most exciting aspect of the film, as Charles finds his voice by fusing R&B with gospel. The film is at its best when it depicts the creation of music, both onstage and in the studio. Songs like “Mess Around,” “I Got a Woman,” and especially “What’d I Say” are presented as set pieces demonstrating why Charles was nicknamed The Genius. The movie keeps the primary focus on the man’s artistry, showing his developing his approach both as a singer and arranger.
Charles’ personal troubles are not shied away from. His heroin addiction is a very prominent element. Late in the film’s lengthy 152 minute running time, it starts to feel a little like too many other drug-addicted celebrity biopics. Of course, thankfully Charles was able to successfully overcome his drug problem unlike the subjects of some of those other films. Providing the adult Charles’ problems with some context, the gut-wrenching early childhood scenes show Charles dealing with the death of his younger brother and subsequent onset of vision problems. Whether entirely accurate or not (as with any biopic, certain events have been dramatized for effect) the childhood tragedies add depth to the personal demons Charles battles later in life.
Even though Foxx easily dominates the film, there are several key supporting performances that strengthen Ray. Charles’ mother Aretha is portrayed by Sharon Warren. She gives the most underrated performance in the film, teaching the young Charles how to deal with his disability. Kerry Washington plays Della Bea, the long-suffering wife of Charles. She has some heartbreaking moments as she tries to balance raising her children while accepting her husband’s barely-hid adultery. As Charles’ mistress (and back-up singer) Margie Hendricks, Regina King is also excellent in a role that earned her numerous award nominations.
Ray looks outstanding on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition. From the clouds of smoke swirling throughout the music clubs to the flashbacks of young Charles with his mother, the clarity is very impressive. The movie is vibrantly colorful during the flashbacks, with the ground looking like red clay. There is plenty of definition even in the jam-packed audiences during performance scenes. The clubs and theatres are often full of shadows, but there is a richness to the shades of greys and deep black levels. I’ve seen Ray on standard DVD, and the Blu-ray is a strong upgrade in all departments.
For a movie that features so much classic music, the audio side of things needs to be as close to perfect as possible. Ray really nails it with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that makes the viewer feel like they are right in the middle of the audience. From the rasp of Charles’ voice, to the deep bass, to the crack of the drums, the live performances are realistic sounding. The performance venue scenes make good use of all speakers, with audience noise and applause coming from all directions. All the dialogue is clear, with no trouble understanding lines even during the noisiest scenes.
Carrying over from the standard definition DVD release are numerous bonus features. If you’re upgrading from that format, prepare to be disappointed if you were hoping for anything new. But for those who skipped the previous release, there is much to like in the commentary, deleted scenes, various featurettes, and extended musical sequences.