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Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Part of our coverage of the 27th Denver International Film Festival

Ray, a dramatic depiction of the life, loves, and struggles of Ray Charles Robinson, the iconic rhythm and blues man, provided a soulful start to the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival.

Premiere

Foxx disappears and becomes Ray Charles
Foxx disappears and becomes Ray Charles

As the opening night film, Ray became the first film in the festival’s history to have a red carpet gala celebration.

On hand at the Buell Theatre were the film’s stars, Jamie Foxx (as Ray), Kerry Washington (as Ray’s wife, Bea), and Regina King (as Margie Hendricks, one of Ray’s back up singers and mistresses). Director Taylor Hackford and his wife, Helen Mirren, also walked down the carpet.

Hackford, who also directed An Officer and a Gentleman and The Devil’s Advocate, addressed the audience before the screening, providing a glimpse into the 16-year odyssey that took the film from an idea to the screen.

Already having Charles’ blessing back in the 1980s, the problem was a lack of financing. Hackford persisted and knew Charles’ life would make for an inspirational movie. “In order to give birth to that incredible voice,” Hackford said, “he went on an extraordinary sort of journey.”

Due

Charles kept the faith in Hackford and his writing partner, James L. White. Hackford credits Charles as being prescient when he told Hackford, “Don’t worry. It’ll happen when it’s due to happen.”

Time came due when Denver magnate Philip Anschutz, the multibillionaire founder of Qwest Communications, stepped up with faith in the project and, more importantly, money.

Anschutz, now diversifying his portfolio and moving away from the rail and telecom industries and into the world of entertainment, did what is still virtually unheard of for an individual: he provided the entire $40 million for the film’s relatively modest budget.

Foxx

Thanks to the confluence of circumstances and timing, Jamie Foxx, a standup comic who has turned dramatic in films such as Collateral and Ali, would be the one to portray one of music’s greatest icons.

“You live or die by the person who plays the lead role,” Hackford said. “Tonight you’re going to see an extraordinary performance that I don’t believe anyone else could have perfected.”

Foxx started playing piano when he was 3, led the band in his gospel church, and went to university on a piano scholarship. In short, he was the man for the job.

By way of his own introduction, Foxx gave a high-energy talk, acknowledging Denver as his second comedy home and that he got his start in “303,” in reference to Denver’s original area code.

Connection

“Ray Charles was the first Internet connection,” Foxx said of the legendary figure who passed away in June. “He connected rhythm and blues, he connected country music, he connected us together, black and white, culturally, he connected the United States and then he even went over to Berlin and he went over to France.

“That was the first time that when you listened to a song, no matter what you were thinking about, you could say, ‘Man, I love that Ray Charles record.’ So we could all gather and get together on the same plane.”

After a couple humorous anecdotes and impressions of Charles, Foxx shared a simple musical lesson he took from Charles that serves as a metaphor for life.

Charles told Foxx, “The notes are right underneath your fingers, all you gotta do is take time out to find out which notes there are so you can play the right music.”

Soul

The name Ray Charles instantly brings to mind classic songs like Hit the Road Jack and Georgia On My Mind and images of a man in sunglasses playing the piano, swaying back and forth while belting out songs with an unmistakable, forceful, impassioned voice.

Behind all that iconic imagery was a life full of torment and guilt. When Ray was only 5 years old, his younger brother, George, died. Within two years of George’s death, Ray would also go blind. But Ray’s mother was a strong willed woman who taught Ray to be independent and challenged him to never, ever let anybody write him off as a cripple.

Blindness would never stand in the way of Ray getting things done. In actuality, Ray’s greatest handicap would be the internal demon that spurred him on to a heroin addiction and womanizing.

The telling of those childhood- and character-defining events is both heartbreaking and inspirational. Without the power of sight, Ray cultivated an impeccable sense of sound and that finely tuned sense would go on to feed his musical diversity. He also had lady luck on his side; meeting up with a young Quincy Jones in Seattle would be one of many pivotal moments in Ray’s life.

Genius

While the pacing sags on occasion and there are moments when Foxx’s lip syncing is a wee bit off, there is so much to be admired in Ray that those faults are easily overlooked. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking when a movie captures the very soul of its inspiration. Ray accomplishes that feat as it exorcises Ray’s childhood demons, exposing the forces that drove Ray’s creativity and gave birth to some of his greatest hits.

Almost everybody knows at least one or two Ray Charles songs, but until now very few got to know Ray Charles the man. Foxx’s portrayal of Ray is a career-altering masterpiece. Early on in the film Foxx’s presence is lost and it is Ray Charles up there on the screen. Ray’s facial expressions, his attitude, his unruly gait and heroin-driven twitches are all there and it is something to behold.

At this point, it seems safe to say Foxx has a lock on next year’s Oscar; it is unimaginable there will be a finer performance this year.

But that’s not to overlook the rest of the cast. Kerry Washington (The Human Stain) and Regina King (Enemy of the State) hold their own as Ray’s lovers. Also, C.J. Sanders stands and delivers an engaging debut performance as the young Ray confronting life without sight.

As would be expected from a Ray Charles biopic, the music provides foot-stomping energy, but more importantly, Ray tells the tale of a one-man musical and cultural revolution. His mix of gospel and soul music brought talk of fire and brimstone from the conservatives of the time, but it was Ray who would persevere, time and again.

At the film’s conclusion, clips of the real life Ray Charles flash on the screen and, after seeing what the man went through, it’s the stuff of goose bumps to see him stand triumphant. Ray is a fitting tribute to an icon who has inspired some of today’s brightest musical talent and no doubt his legend will continue to do so.