Biopics are difficult, because a life doesn't adhere to the structure of narrative, no matter how hard the writer tries to mash it into one. Likewise for pacing - lives are inconvenient in their complexities. They’re often cyclical and they’ll stubbornly stick in a rut or cram all the good events into a condensed period of time (think of your own, for Christ’s sake). Then there’s those damned classic unities. How many jumps of decades can be managed gracefully within an hour and a half (or, as is the case more frequently, two-and-a-half)? But most difficult, I believe, is the fact that if a person is famous enough to have a film made of their life, well, we all know the tune, more or less, as well as the final notes. Malcolm X got shot, Tina Turner left Ike and pulled her life together, Ali beat Frasier and Ray Charles kicked drugs. All of them, coming from humble beginnings, made it big. As a crime fiction fanatic who thrills at unexpected turns, I find that advance notice of the road map detracts from my driving enjoyment.
But counterbalancing my hesitation for the genre were the big hopes I harbored for Ray. I’m an enormous Jamie Foxx fan, having seen him live hosting the ESPYs, and I’ve been continuously impressed and surprised by the range of his talent. He’s an inspired stand-up, actor, singer, dancer, and mimic. Let’s face it; the guy can do anything. Further, you can’t beat Ray Charles. Just the music in the trailers put me in a good mood and made me tap my feet.
I’m pleased to report I found the film delightful. I must say, for most of the movie Taylor Hackford is in his directorial groove. He incorporates music creatively and intelligently, and a few of the musical montages are truly breathtaking. Jamie Foxx does not disappoint—it’s a major league performance (he will be nominated). So dead-on is he in his capturing of Ray Charles that when Hackford cuts to footage of the real Ray in the credit-rolling afterglow of the film, I found the true images almost discordant. That said, the film still labors with some of the problems of the biopic form (flashbacks, struggling to synthesize and condense early childhood memories with myriad vigorous plot lines, trying to sustain and make compelling a wife who put up with philandering and decades of spousal heroin abuse). For the most part, Hackford and White did a splendid job with the script, but I felt for them as they struggled to put together a suitable ending. Lives generally don’t end conveniently. And even less often is a death (or, worse, a title-card-reported death) the punctuation mark with which to close a narrative.