Length: 2 hrs 33 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
BD Resolution: 1080p
BD Video Codec: AVC (@ an average 28 mbps)
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 4.0 mbps – higher during the songs)
French DTS 5.1
English DVS 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Film Rating: PG-13 (Depiction of Drug Addiction, Sexuality and Some Thematic Elements)
Release Date: February 1, 2011
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Terrence Dashon Howard, Larenz Tate, Richard Schiff, Curtis Armstrong, Aunjanue Ellis and Regina King
Screenplay by: James L. White
Produced and Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Film Rating: 3/5
Ray is an agreeable enough movie about Ray Charles, one of America’s greatest musical talents, featuring an admirably restrained performance by Jamie Foxx in the title role. If I just take the movie as a piece unto itself, and not as a real depiction of the life of Ray Charles, the film excels. The scripting, acting and directing are all clearly done with affection for Ray Charles and with an appreciation for some of the difficulties and complications he dealt with during his long life and career. The performances, from Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning turn as Charles through a fine supporting cast including Regina King and then-newcomer Sharon Warren, are all nicely crafted works. Each of the characters we meet feels like they’ve lived something of the life we are seeing – there’s a strong sense of truth coming from each actor a we see. The musical performances are a joy, almost seamlessly blending real Ray Charles audio tracks with Jamie Foxx’s on-screen performances and Taylor Hackford’s staging. And Hackford’s direction of the material is superlative – he clearly connects with Charles’ rags to riches story, and with the various musical directions Charles took over the course of his career.
I should note that this isn’t a new focus for Hackford. His first major film (and still my favorite of his works), The Idolmaker, is a period depiction of early 60s music producer Bob Marcucci in fictional terms, featuring a standout performance by Ray Sharkey in the lead role. In 1987, Hackford undertook the Chuck Berry documentary/concert film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll, which stands as one of the frankest depictions of Berry we’ve ever seen. (And the 4-disc DVD set released four years ago stands as one of the finest special edition DVDs we’ve ever been given.) Given that Hackford spent 15 years trying to raise the financing to make this film, it’s clear that his involvement with the Ray Charles project started soon after he completed the Chuck Berry film. And all 3 films share another key element – they were independent projects that Taylor Hackford produced out of love for the subject matter. (Even Ray was not directly financed by the studios. Instead, financier Philip Anschutz provided the 40 million dollars to make the movie.) But therein lies the rub. Where the earlier films were unflinching in their depictions of the positive and negative aspects of their subjects, Ray is uncharacteristically sentimental. I’ll discuss this in depth in the next paragraph for those who already know this material, but I’ll summarize things quickly here for those readers who haven’t seen the film yet. The problem here is that the movie delves no deeper than a Ron Howard film would go in asking the difficult questions and looking for the less obvious answers. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film at all – just that it doesn’t scratch more than an inch or two below the surface and it settles for some easy conclusions that the real Ray Charles never made. It’s certainly a worthy film to see, but I recommend fans of the film also look at David Ritz’s book Brother Ray if they would like to understand the man on a much deeper level. I must acknowledge that the conditions of Anschutz’s funding may have had some impact here – Anschutz said there could be no sex or profanity in the film, leading to the PG-13 rating and what Hackford has acknowledged was a compromise of the lengths he would normally go. But that limitation does not explain the choices made to limit the depth of the story and to simplify the life of Ray Charles to what we see onscreen.
SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH – SKIP AHEAD IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO JUST EVALUATE THE TECHNICAL SPECS AND THE EXTRA FEATURES. While I appreciate the simplicity the film achieves in saying that Ray Charles’ life is defined by the death of his brother, the tough love of his mother, the love of his wife, and his struggle with heroin addiction, there’s something a little too easy in the way the film tells the story. Every scene of struggle for Charles is marked by a flashback to his brother’s death. Every moment of self-questioning and even uplift is marked by a flashback to his mother’s words of wisdom, or a flashback to his first days of blindness in her care. Ray’s constant womanizing is softened in the end by his devotion to his wife, who is shown to stay with him past his drug problems through the great moment in his life in 1979 when the state of Georgia adopted his performance of “Georgia on My Mind” as the state song. Ray’s drug issues are shown as starting with marijuana, progressing to heroin, and effectively ending once he keeps his promise and stays away from heroin for the rest of his life. And if all of these things were true, I would have no issue here. But they aren’t the full story. The real Ray actually was nurtured by TWO mothers, his real one, who practiced tough love, and a former wife of his father (not shown in the film), who did her best to spoil him. The real Ray hit his lowest point, according to David Ritz, when he got the news that his real mother had died – and this is a moment neither shown nor discussed in the film. The real Ray actually divorced his wife Della Bea in 1977. And while the real Ray did indeed kick heroin in the mid-1960s, he did not completely renounce that lifestyle. As Ritz points out, he openly drank hard liquor and continued to smoke marijuana on a regular, even daily basis for the rest of his life, continuing to use the same reasoning we hear in the movie: “What I put in my body is my own business.” All of this material could easily have been included without increasing the running time of the movie, but this was not the intent here. The filmmakers clearly wanted to make a more positive film, and have a neater conclusion than the reality would tell us. I have no problem with that wish, except that we’re talking about a real person and not a fictional one. It’s the same issue I have had in the past with films like Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. If I watch the film as a fictional story, it’s a fine piece of work – particularly with all those great Ray Charles songs in it. But if we’re going to talk about the real person, in all his complexity, the film falls short of giving us an honest picture.
Ray has previously been released on standard definition DVD and HD-DVD. The new Blu-ray release carries over all of the extras found on the HD-DVD release, which itself improved on the prior DVD edition by adding more featurettes. The Blu-ray also adds a pair of PIP functions, one of which incorporates quotes and clips from the featurettes into a “Scene Companion” and the other of which identifies which song is playing at any given time, and even gives the viewer the option of buying the song on iTunes. Best of all, the Blu-ray sports new AVC and DTS-HD MA transfers that present the movie in the best possible fashion. I recommend at least a rental to fans of the film, Taylor Hackford or Ray Charles. If you already love this film and already have the DVD, I would actually recommend a purchase here, since the Blu-ray contains more extras than you have seen before, in addition to the new transfers.
I need to make one side note before continuing with the usual materials here - Ray is notable not only for its own merits, but also for the fact that it has become a bellwether for the issue of online piracy, or as Taylor Hackford now terms it, Internet Theft. On the day that Ray was released in theaters in 2004, the film was illegally downloaded tens of thousands of times around the world from various websites. The cost to the filmmakers is unknown, but speculated to easily be in the millions, given how many people stole the film without either paying for a theater ticket or buying or renting a DVD. One result of this is that it incensed Taylor Hackford to the point that he brought the matter to the US Congress, citing the specific figures he had about how serious the problem is. While this does not directly address the Blu-ray in front of us, I feel we must acknowledge the issue, and how much this particular film has spoken about it.
VIDEO QUALITY 4 ½ /5
Ray is presented in a new 1080p AVC 1.85:1 transfer that presents a variety of flesh tones and environments in a wonderfully detailed manner. There are many scenes in dark nightclubs and theaters, and the black levels look solid. At the same time, the stock period footage of various locations really stands out due to much higher grain levels and a more degraded picture quality. I should note that I am watching the film on a 40” Sony XBR2 HDTV. If anyone is watching the film on a larger monitor and is having issues, please post them on this thread.
AUDIO QUALITY 4 ½/5
Ray is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, along a standard DTS 5.1 mix in French and an English DVS track. (And if ever there was a film that demands a DVS track, this one is it – considering the primary character and the subject matter.) The DTS-HD mix is a great one, particularly during the song performances, where the elements really spring to life.
SPECIAL FEATURES 3 ½/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of Ray comes with the usual BD-Live connectivity and My Scenes functionality, as well as pocket BLU functionality. The disc also carries over the extras from the prior DVD and HD-DVD releases, including various featurettes and deleted scenes. New to the Blu-ray is a pair of U-Control features that provide PIP functionality to either provide song identifications or to include bits of featurette material as the movie progresses.
Commentary with Taylor Hackford– Taylor Hackford’s commentary from the 2005 DVD is included here. It’s Hackford’s usually thorough and enthusiastic overview of the making of the movie, the background of the material and anything and everything in between.
Taylor Hackford Introduction – (1:35, 480p, DTS) Taylor Hackford’s introduction to the 2005 DVD is included here.
Deleted Scenes – (27:36 Total, 480p, Non-Anamorphic, DTS) Fourteen deleted scenes and extensions are included here in standard definition, with optional commentary available from Taylor Hackford. The scenes are available individually on a menu or through a “Play All” function. One deleted scene is really a series of outtakes of Jamie Foxx improving on a putdown of one of Ray’s associates at a later point in the film. All of this material was available on the 2005 DVD.
Extended Musical Scenes – (25:33 Total, 480p, Non-Anamorphic, DTS) Nine of the musical performances seen in the film are presented here in their entirety, in standard definition. They can be viewed individually on a menu or via a “Play All” function. An 18 second introduction by Jamie Foxx in full frame precedes the group. For the record, the songs are “What Kind of Man Are You?”, “Hit the Road Jack”, “Hallellujah, I Love Her So”, “Leave My Woman Alone”, “(Night Time is) The Right Time”, “Unchain My Heart”, “Mary Ann”, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Hard Times”. This material was originally on the 2005 DVD.
Stepping Into The Part – (10:40, 480p, Full Frame, DTS) This featurette deals with Jamie Foxx’s work to perform as Ray Charles, including material about the prosthetic makeup he wore over his eyes for some scenes, and a fun bit of video of his meeting with Ray Charles in a recording studio. Additional footage is shown of a Ray Charles appearance with Dinah Shore, from which Foxx drew some of his vocal inflections. This featurette was available on the 2005 DVD.
Ray Remembered – (4:03, 480p, Full Frame, DTS-HD MA) This brief piece is a series of fond comments about Ray Charles from friends, family and musicians. This featurette was available on the 2005 DVD. For some reason, the Blu-ray encode of this featurette indicates a DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
The Women of Ray – (9:55, 480p, Full Frame, DTS) This featurette covers the various women in Ray Charles’ life, including interviews with the actresses playing them in the film. Kerry Washington is seen together with the real Della Robinson as part of this featurette. This featurette was first available on the HD-DVD.
The Filmmakers’ Journey – (9:22, 480p, Full Frame, DTS) This featurette deals with various aspects of the process of making the film. One part deals with the work of James L. White in writing the screenplay, particularly in dealing with issues of heroin addiction. Another part shows Taylor Hackford working together with the real Ray Charles, sometimes contentiously, in providing piano accompaniment to an early scene. Finally, some time is spent discussing the casting of then-unknown Sharon Warren as Ray’s mother, Aretha. This material was first available on the HD-DVD.
Ray: An American Story – (28:47, 480p, Full Frame, DTS) This is a longer featurette that goes over a lot of the same ground seen in the other featurettes, including some overlap of interview sements and soundbites. Different footage of Ray Charles’ encounter with Jamie Foxx is included here. This material was first available on the HD-DVD.
A Look Inside Ray – (3:20, 480p, Non-Anamorphic, DTS) This quick featurette is more of a trailer for the film than anything more substantial. There are a few quick soundbites and snippets, but nothing you won’t already know from watching the other, more thorough pieces here.
Theatrical Trailer – (2:48, 480p, Non-Anamorphic, DTS) The film’s theatrical trailer is presented here in standard definition. I believe this was originally included on the 2005 DVD, and the same file is what we have here.
U-Control – 2 NEW FEATURES – Here we have the only truly new extra material on the Blu-ray. Both are PIP functions, which play while the movie is running. The first is billed as a “Scene Companion”, along the lines of the one presented on the Backdraft Blu-ray. It pops up at various points throughout the film in one of three components. One component is a biographical/informational pop-up that will provide a brief filmography for a cast member. A second component is a series of quotations by various members of the cast and creative staff, read by an offscreen voice as the text of the quotes appears in the PIP box. The third component is a few bits of used and unused footage from the other featurettes on the disc, where comments by Taylor Hackford and Jamie Foxx can now be seen onscreen rather than just being used as voiceover. In some cases, the footage is simply re-used from the earlier featurettes and coupled with on-set video. The second PIP function on the disc is “The Music of Ray”, which acts as a handy identifier of whatever song is playing in the background or foreground of the scene onscreen. The function allows viewers to make a playlist of favorite songs heard during the film. For those viewers completely wired into the internet, there is even an option to buy the songs from iTunes.
BD-Live - The more general BD-Live screen is accessible via the menu, which makes various online materials available, including tickers, trailers and special events. At the same time, the Blu-ray also allows for pocket BLU iPhone connectivity.
My Scenes - The usual bookmarking feature is included here.
The usual promotional ticker is present on the main menu, but can be toggled off at your discretion. The film, and the special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual thorough chapter menu is present. When you first put the Blu-ray in the player, you’ll initially see the usual Blu-ray trailers from Universal, piped in via BD-Live.
IN THE END...
Ray is a good film that works quite well as a celebration of Ray Charles’ music and a simple depiction of his life. It doesn’t address any of the deeper complexities of his world, but for what it is, the film is enjoyable and entertaining. The Blu-ray offers a fine new AVC transfer and all of the extras previously available on DVD and HD-DVD. Fans of Ray Charles will enjoy the music, fans of Taylor Hackford will enjoy the commentary and the extras, and fans of Jamie Foxx will enjoy his Oscar-winning performance as the man himself.
February 2, 2011.