Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There’s a belief amongst film critics, stars and audiences, that if you want to win an Academy Award you either play a real-life figure or someone with a disability. If that’s the case, then Jamie Foxx was a guarantee for his Best Actor Academy Award win for 2004’s Ray.
It’s perhaps a viewpoint of movie awards that does something of a disservice to Foxx. He’s mesmerising as Ray Charles, in Taylor Hackford’s 2004 film that was a firm favourite on the awards circuit during its year of release; a lot of which came down to Foxx making the role of Ray Charles completely his own, capturing the mannerisms, the charisma and the singer’s complexities in a magnetic manner. It’s a good thing too, because as enjoyable a film as Ray is, it’s also part of a cycle of Hollywood biopics about musicians that was about to dominate Hollywood for the next few years and which would inevitably garner award nominations.
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So many of these films perhaps owe structural debts to Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Buddy Holly Story, and Elvis, John Carpenter’s film about the life of Elvis Presley that was a television movie and not made for the big screen; an intriguing notion given the director and lead actor in Kurt Russell. Yet by 2007, the narrative style and screenplay structure of musical biopics became so ingrained in the minds of audiences that it inevitably led to a spoof in the shape of Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which really went to town on the cliches and tropes that go hand-in-hand with the genre.
Watching Ray in 2004 (and the same will go for the following year’s Walk the Line and 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody), one cannot help but be put in mind of the spoof version, with the manner in which a film like this uses flashbacks and memories to tell what might look today to be an adaptation of a Wikipedia entry; going through the motions, telling the story in an A-to-B-to-C fashion before flashing back to events that take place before A that contextualise events in the present day of the film. That isn’t to say that Ray does it badly, it just does it very conventionally, and the whole thing does feel like award bait at times, something that it overcomes thanks to its superb central performance and an ability to not look away from some of the more emotionally uglier moments of Charles himself.
That Charles signed off on the film, and contributed both his back catalogue and new music to the soundtrack, says a lot about how he was very open to allowing the film to be less sanitised. Even more remarkably, the film is somewhat unflinching in its portrayal of a world that is not willing to take it easy on him despite his blindness. Being a black man, he still has to contend with racism from the country band he is a member of at the start of his musical career. His experience of working with that leads to his insisting on being paid in single dollar bills, not to mention indifference from other performers he ends up on the road with.
Some of the most powerful scenes come in flashback form. The way Charles’ childhood is interwoven into the narrative isn’t subtle; something happens in the film’s present-day and it leads to Ray having a flashback to something that he is reminded of from his past. It’s an example of the film making points that the audience can already discern from what the script is already saying and what Foxx is conveying with his performance, but on the other hand, those flashback scenes are powerful in and of themselves. The death of his younger brother and the loss of his sight is vividly conveyed, and his mother’s subsequent tough-love approach to helping him figure out how to apply and live his life with the lack of vision are deeply emotional.
There is a distinct lack of sentimentality that comes from how it portrays Ray’s blindness that Hackford deserves credit for. Sure, Foxx is playing a blind man, and Oscar voters clearly love it when non-disabled actors throw themselves into roles where they play characters with a disability (a problematic notion admittedly), but Foxx captures the charm and essence of Charles so vividly throughout Ray that you simply cannot look away. The actor is capturing someone who is a ball of charm and yet isn’t above cheating on his wife with his female backing singers and lying about his drug habit, something that has a tragic knock-on effect when it comes to his affair with Margie Hendricks (Regina King).
While subtlety frequently goes out the window, Hackford’s direction at other times is quite vivid, capturing the emotional undercurrent of the film magnificently. While it may not come close to matching Oliver Stone’s in-your-face visual stylings of The Doors, or the grandiose flourishes that Dexter Fletcher would bring to Elton John biopic Rocketman, the subtlety of Hackford’s non-showy approach does allow Foxx, Kerry Washington and Regina King to soar with their work, and the screenplay to sing (no pun intended) when it hits its dramatic beats as well as it does. Like so many musical biopics, Hackford captures the thrill of music and creation and the effects it has on the audience in a way that is driven by catharsis, and which will have you running to Spotify to listen to his music.
Movies such as this don’t work as well if the artist’s life is easy going and nothing dramatic happens to them, so like the rags-to-riches story of Loretta Lynn, or the descent into substance abuse that became a prime part of Jim Morrison’s life in The Doors, Hackford zeroes in on Ray Charles’ difficulties in navigating life as not only a blind man, but as a black man achieving success during a never-ending period of racial upheaval in the US during the 50s and 60s. Ray also tackles Charles’ own issues with heroin, that takes a toll on his physical and emotional wellbeing.
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The film itself, amazingly, was not a straightforward production. It may have the Universal Studios logo adorning it at the very beginning, but the studio only picked up the distribution rights after production was completed. The film was very much an independent production that took 15 years to procure the necessary funding and which many studios were too wary to go near: a shocking feat given that Charles was an acclaimed performer.
In Hollywood, a film such as The Doors was in development hell for years, going through directors, writers, and potential Jim Morrisons in what seemed like a never-ending quest by studios to get a film made about the band and its lead singer. Yet nobody would touch a film about Charles, even if in the end the film itself hit all the beats, tropes and cliches that are an enticing prospect for studios and the Hollywood awards circuit. It comes as a shock that not every studio was beating the doors down to get near it.