Film: The Wrong Man

Musical biopics, as film biographies of famous musicians are known in the trade, get no respect, and rarely deserve it. Picture for picture, they’ve long ranked high among the falsest, most absurd movies ever to make their way to the screen. Even as a boy, I could tell that The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story were way too good to be true, and as I grew older and wiser and encountered such shameless exercises in euphemism as Night and Day (in which Cole Porter was turned into a happily heterosexual Cary Grant), I began to wonder if the genre itself was somehow to blame. Might there be something intrinsic to the musical biopic as made in Hollywood that rendered it inimical to artfulness and common sense?

At first glance, and for some time thereafter, Taylor Hackford’s Ray looks and sounds as though it might be the exception that tests the rule. Certainly this two-and-a-half-hour blockbuster is more ambitious, in every sense of the word, than most such ventures. Unlike the musical biopics of the more innocent past, it gives the impression of candor when it comes to such touchy matters as Ray Charles’s womanizing and drug addiction, and though the clichés of the genre pervade the script (by Hackford and James L. White), Ray at least manages to get off to a reasonably convincing start. But fiction quickly gains on truth, and by the time the credits roll you’ll likely harbor the suspicion—as well you should—that you’ve been baited and switched by a team of filmmakers bent on turning a complicated, morally equivocal life into a comfy yarn with a happy ending.

Part of what fools you about Ray is the film’s brilliantly reflective surface. It stands to reason that the music should be convincing, since Charles was intimately involved with its production (he died shortly before Ray was released), but in certain ways I was even more impressed by the production design. As is so often the case with contemporary Hollywood films set in the comparatively recent past, enormous trouble has been taken to make Ray look not merely plausible but true. Stephen Altman, the production designer, and Scott Plauche, the art director, have reconstructed a lost world of dirt-poor Deep South hamlets, segregated buses, and chitlin-circuit nightclubs with such richness and exactitude of detail that anyone even vaguely acquainted with the real thing will gasp with admiration.

As for Jamie Foxx’s performance, it couldn’t be better. Everything you’ve heard about it is true: Foxx looks, sounds, and moves exactly like Ray Charles, and even does his own piano-playing to boot (he studied at Juilliard). Of course he can’t sing like Charles, but his lip-synching is so precise that you forget that the voice on the soundtrack is the real thing—or, rather, that the man on the screen is merely play-acting.

The creation of this illusion is of the highest importance to the success of Ray. You can get away with a good deal of approximation when it comes to an artist whose records are better remembered than his live performances. Charles, however, was seen so frequently on TV that his distinctive appearance and mannerisms remain a living memory in the minds of most of the people who are likely to want to see a movie about his life. Foxx’s Charles is so accurate that you stop looking for imperfections and give in to the feeling that you’re seeing the man himself. He’s so far inside Charles, in fact, that he has room enough to act, not merely impersonate. If you saw Foxx in Collateral, you know how subtle and intelligent an actor he is, and in Ray he employs the same skills to similarly impressive effect.

Which brings us to the catch: Everything about Ray is real except the story it tells. To be sure, Ray closely tracks the recorded events of Charles’s life. Born into small-town poverty, he lost his sight as a child but resolved not to let his blindness stop him from leading an independent life. After scuffling for years on the bottom rungs of the music business, he developed a magnetically individual style that combined blues, jazz, and gospel and became one of the biggest pop stars of the 1950s, reaching across racial lines to appeal to middle-class white listeners without diluting his down-home sound.

All this is depicted in Ray, which is, paradoxically, one of the film’s gravest flaws. As with most biopics, the real-life story on which the film is based is compressed and foreshortened so drastically that you never get a chance to pay proper attention to any one part of it. Watching Ray is like going on an if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium tour of Europe. You end up seeing most of the sights through the back window of the bus, receding in the distance as you’re hustled onward to the next stop on the itinerary.

Beyond this, though, Hackford has sanitized Charles’s life to a degree that will not be apparent to most viewers, albeit for a reason that couldn’t be more obvious: He wants to make it more inspiring than it really was. Recognizing that his personal irresponsibility is endangering his wife and children, the “Ray Charles” of Ray heroically kicks his drug habit and—we are led to suppose—becomes a good husband. Alas, this false epiphany is contradicted in every particular by Charles’s astonishingly candid memoir, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story (1978). On screen we see the addict, but in the book we learn that Charles liked heroin and had “no regrets” about his long years of dependency (“I have no horror stories to tell”). On screen we see two or three of his extramarital affairs, but in the book we learn the full and appalling extent of his lifelong philandering, not to mention the near-indifference with which he viewed its effects on his second marriage. His first marriage, interestingly, goes unmentioned in Ray, as does his eventual divorce from his second wife (beautifully portrayed in the film by Kerry Washington), who in time could no longer stomach his unfaithfulness.

Unlike the makers of Ray, I don’t look to the lives of artists for moral edification, though sometimes it can be found there. A film about Ray Charles’s youthful struggle to make his way in the world, for example, might well have been stirring. But to sculpt a tinsel epiphany out of his adult life is to twist it beyond recognition, and in addition to obscure the never-to-be-forgotten fact that great artists are not always good people. For all the permanent and undiminished beauty of the music on its soundtrack, nothing in Ray says quite so much about the life of the man who made it as the last two sentences of his Washington Post obituary: “Estimates of his surviving children varied. He is believed to have had 12.” Whatever else that is, it’s not heroic.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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