Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story
The extraordinary life story of Ray Charles. A man who fought harder and went farther than anyone thought possible.
Terrence Dashon Howard
Running Time: 152 minutes
US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 15
Country: United States
If last year saw the rise of the feature-length, left-of-centre documentary, then this is destined to be the year of the sprawling, Oscar-friendly biopic, with The Aviator, Alexander and ‘Kinsey’ leading the way. Just as each of those films is about not only a man, but the history of America itself (even the ancient Alexander allegorises more recent imperialist ventures in the Middle East), so Taylor Hackford’s ‘Ray’ is not just the story of a black musician, but, like ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘Ali’, a potted account of the African-American experience in the twentieth century.
In 1948, a seventeen-year old blind pianist and singer named Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) travelled alone on a Greyhound bus from Florida to the more vibrant jazz scene of Seattle, and so began a musical legend. From his derivative crooning with Swingtime Records, to his virtual invention of soul with Atlantic Records, to the unprecedentedly generous contract that he negotiated with ABC/Paramount, Charles’ talent drove him to become one of America’s most popular artists, with an extraordinary ability to keep reinventing himself. Charles lived until 2004, but ‘Ray’ focusses on the most tempestuous period of his life, tracing his early gigs in Seattle and on the road, his marriage in 1954 to choirgirl Della Bea (Kerry Washington), his affairs with singers Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King), his public stance against Southern segregationism in the early 1960s, and his successful fight against heroin addiction and personal demons in 1966.
Even if his best known film is ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’, Taylor Hackford debuted with the musical ‘The Idolmaker’ and has also directed the documentary ‘Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and produced the Ritchie Valens biopic ‘La Bamba’ – and his undoubted passion for music ensures that Charles’ songs are no mere background filler, but an essential part of the story of ‘Ray’, reflecting the movements and rhythms in the man’s life. In one scene, for example, Charles finds just the right aggressive syncopation for ‘Hit the Road Jack’ in a row he has with Margie, while clever editing suggestively reinterprets his song ‘Unchain My Heart’ (ostensibly about an attempt to break off a love affair) as a plea for civil rights.
It is, however, Charles’ experiences as a child both his failure to prevent a tragic accident, and the guiding strength of his mother Aretha (Sharon Warren) – which the film suggests were the most important influences on the musician’s subsequent life. This approach has its advantages and its disadvantages for while certainly the film’s most affecting and visually striking scenes are its hallucinatory, at times nightmarish, flashbacks, suffused with sickly greens and ochres, their cumulative effect is not to expand Charles’ character, but rather to reduce it to just a few primal moments. So traumatic is the death of his brother George, so inspirational is the guiding voice of his long-dead mother Aretha (Sharon Warren), that everything which follows (and that is the greater part of the film’s near two hours), no matter how colourful, seems drearily pale by comparison, blunting the film’s dramatic impact and the way in which Charles’ psychological torments are finally resolved on screen is too neatly pat to be anything but trite.
Still, all of this can almost be overlooked thanks to the mesmerising performance by Jamie Foxx, who recently outshone Tom Cruise in Collateral, and who here captures all of Charles’ physical and verbal idiosyncrasies so perfectly that you never for a moment imagine he is merely acting. It is an Oscar-worthy performance, giving to ‘Ray’ the one thing that it otherwise strangely seems to lack soul.
It's Got: Excellent integration of music; an Oscar-worthy performance from Jamie Foxx; haunting flashbacks.
It Needs: More substance and more coherence though full of events, you will leave the cinema without much of anything even its heroin subplot seems underdone; and for a story that is so sweeping (and long), the resolution of its psychodrama is disappointingly trite.
Jamie Foxx puts the soul into 'Ray' and probably the Oscar, too.