I dunno... I've always been a bit wary of big-screen biopics. There is just something inherently suspect to me about the idea of providing a two-hour Cliff Notes version of someone's life, a weird quick skim that can't even begin to scratch the surface of the deep waters of a human soul. There is also a very fine line between exultation and exploitation, and even with the best of intentions most biopics degenerate into the latter. It is not hard to imagine that, had their filmmakers made only one or two false moves, even such exemplary examples of the biopic genre as 'Raging Bull,' 'Capote' or 'Patton' could have quickly devolved into 'Mommie Dearest.' So forgive me for being a bit cynical when it came time for 'Ray,' the inevitable biopic of the late, great musical genius Ray Charles.
A dream project of director Taylor Hackford (himself no stranger to the musical drama, having helmed 'The Idolmaker' and 'Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll'), it took the filmmaker nearly fifteen years to finally get a greenlight for 'Ray.' Which I suppose is quite a shame. It is indicative of our culture that we often don't realize or appreciate the rich personal lives and struggles of our greatest artists until after they're dead. Really, isn't rather pathetic that Charles' biggest sale success came not during his illustrious thirty-plus year career, but by way of Starbucks, who released the gazillion-selling greatest hits compilation "Genius Loves Company" only to piggy-back off of the success of the movie?
Anyway, it turns out Hackford's persistence paid off, for 'Ray' is an often wonderful film. It avoids most of the usual pitfalls that befall lesser biopics, perfectly balancing Charles' professional accomplishments and personal struggles. Indeed, Hackford and screenwriter James L. White set out to prove that the two were one and the same. Take the scene where Ray (played by Jamie Foxx in an Oscar-winning performance, as if you didn't know) spontaneously writes the song "Hit the Road, Jack" after a lover's quarrel with his backup singer slash mistress Margie Hendricks (Regina King). In more pedestrian hands, this scene would simply have lead to a subsequent music video montage designed to sell soundtrack CDs, but Hackford and White instead use it as the perfect encapsulation of one of Charles' major musical innovations -- the merging of R&B and gospel. The entire narrative of 'Ray' weaves together thematic threads in the same way, so by the end of the film we realize that who Charles was as a man is inseparable from who he was as a musician. A mundane observation, you might say, but it is worth remembering that with today's generation having been brought up largely on pre-fabricated pop stars and 'American Idol,' such a concept is revolutionary indeed.
As assured and passionate as Hackford's direction of 'Ray' is, it would have been nothing without Jamie Foxx. Portraying a real-life icon may be one of the supreme challenges any actor can face, and it is to Foxx's great credit that he doesn't merely impersonate Charles, or resort to hammy caricature, but inhabits his spirit. Rather that simply mimicking, Foxx lets his movements, mannerisms, speech patterns and musical performance naturally flow out of his innate understanding of what Ray Charles embodied. Some of the making-of footage included on this HD DVD shows the real Charles and Foxx together, just jamming and hanging out, and after a while it truly is difficult to tell the two apart. Foxx really is that good.
Foxx also makes you forget what is still lacking in 'Ray.' Granted, no biopic could ever hope to fully convey Charles' incredible contributions to American music, so the film simply stops trying halfway through. Somewhat frustrating, it climaxes just as Charles was about to enter a second and equally-fulfilling phase of his musical journey. Yet the film's narrative arc remains strong; Hackford focuses primarily on Charles' early battles, including the loss of his sight, the accidental drowning of his brother, his growing heroin addiction and his relentless womanizing, and the redemptive conclusion of the film is satisfying. What 'Ray' gets right, it gets really right. And like the best biopics, it left me not only with a renewed appreciation for its subject, but also a newfound desire to discover more about this most amazing life. Even if 'Ray's only real ambition was to cynically sell more Ray Charles CDs, it already had me at hello.
Terrific! 'Ray' looks superb on HD DVD. Universal presents the film in 1.85:1 and 1080p video, with VC1 the compression codec of choice. This is definitely up there with the best transfers I've yet seen on the format, and just may be my new favorite piece of demo material.
What I love about 'Ray' is that it is the kind of transfer that looks great but isn't showy. Too many modern transfers are so tweaked out that, while they may look good enough to eat, they're hardly realistic. This visual presentation of 'Ray' seems to find the perfect balance between the two. It has the feel of film, with a natural and slightly "earthy" visual style, yet retains a glossy perfection that really is as smooth as silk. Expertly shot by director of photography Pawel Edelman, colors are perfectly saturated with excellent fidelity and stability. Edelman also uses a more sepia-tone visual aesthetic for some of the flashback sequences, which look just as impressive. (A couple of the film's dream-like hallucination scenes are totally blown out and oversaturated, but it appears intentional so I won't bitch about it.)
The level of detail apparent throughout the transfer is also reference-quality -- there is nary a shot in 'Ray' that looks anything less than three-dimensional. I could make out individual pores on the actor's skins, or even see slight gradations of texture on a bead of sweat. I also did not notice the edge enhancement that mars the standard DVD release, and the HD DVD looks sharper yet smoother. Equally as impressive is how consistent the transfer is -- even on solid backgrounds and during scenes with fast-motion, I detected no noise, pixelization or macroblocking. Truly fantastic stuff.
'Ray,' of course, is a movie that's all about the music -- if this soundtrack had sucked, it wouldn't have mattered how great the picture looked or how many extras they stuffed on the disc. It's moot anyway, because though Universal offers only a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround option on this one (alas, no Dolby TrueHD mix), it offers a discernible boost above the Dolby Digital track on the standard DVD release. Ray Charles never sounded so good.
However, I will say right up front that this mix is front heavy. The majority of the film does not utilize the rear channels to any great effect. The occasional scene offers a bit of light atmosphere, or crowd noise during the musical numbers, but it is primarily a stereo mix. However, in terms of tonal reproduction, this mix sounds exemplary. I'm not used to such a sense of presence and separation to individual instruments in a mix, from the plink-plonk of the piano keys to Jamie Foxx's eerily-accurate vocals which are firmly rooted in the center channel. Dynamic range is very strong as well, with a nice and warm sound to the mid-range, distortion-free highs and just enough tight bass to deliver the appropriate kick without being overpowering. No, 'Ray' will not envelope you with a wall of sound whizzing around your head, but it doesn't just what it should do, and it does it very well.
Universal's standard DVD release of 'Ray' is a bit curious. Though it comes with plenty bullet points on the back of packaging, a closer look reveals that overall there isn't really a ton of making-of material provided. However, the DVD does include the option to watch 'Ray' in an extended version featuring 27 minutes of deleted footage (also available separately as a supplement). Curiously, the HD DVD drops that function, yet conversely includes a wealth of additional supplements unique to this edition. Which, in the end, makes for an altogether superior package.
Let's start with what is still probably the best feature on the either the HD DVD or the DVD release, the audio commentary with director Taylor Hackford. Having spent a good fifteen years attempting to get 'Ray' off of the ground, the film was an obvious labor of love for him and that shines brightly during the commentary. Particularly revelatory is Hackford's discussion of which scenes in the film were inspired by real-life incidents and which the filmmakers made up out of whole cloth. He also raves about the performances, especially Foxx's, but for once it doesn't sound like backpatting but merely stating the obvious. This is a great commentary track that even casual fans of the film will enjoy.
Up next are 27 minutes of Deleted Scenes. Again, they are presented here as a supplement with no option to watch them reedited back in to the film. However, though I enjoyed many of the scenes and they are well worth watching, I felt the film was already long enough, so I can't say I'm crushed that there is no extended cut of the film included. Actually, I was more disappointed that the scenes are presented only in a windowboxed 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 480i video, as the quality is only fair. Hackford also provides optional commentary on all fourteen of the scenes, which offers much-needed explanation on the deletions.
Additional excised material comes by way of two Extended Musical Sequences, a nice little bonus that allows you to enjoy more of "What Kind of Man Are You" and "Hit the Road, Jack." Like the deleted scenes, both of these numbers are presented in windowboxed 1.78:1 video encoded at 480i. (However, despite the middling picture quality, the sound for both scenes is about on par with the quality of the main feature.)
Also included are three featurettes that, unfortunately, are far too short to offer much in the way of insight. "Stepping Into the Part" runs ten minutes and includes some terrific footage of Jamie Foxx "auditioning" with the late, great Ray Charles for the role of his doppelganger. Foxx and Hackford's sense of revelry for Charles is obvious, and it is great to see an actor like Foxx rise to the challenge and subsequently hit it out of the park. Certainly, this is the best featurette of the bunch. The remaining two vignettes are odd and ineffective: "A Look Inside Ray" is just another three minutes of Ray Charles audition footage, with slighter interview segments with Foxx and Hackford. "Ray Remembered" is a nice little montage of rare photos of Charles plus reminisces by Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau and others, but at only four minutes it is far too cursory.
Rounding out the extras is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in 1.78:1 and 480i video. No great shakes, but it does mark the first time Universal has included a film's theatrical trailer on the HD DVD proper, so I guess that is noteworthy in itself.
'Ray' is an all-around terrific package on HD DVD. Gorgeous transfer, top-notch soundtrack and tons of extras (including some HD exclusives) make this an unbeatable deal for only $28.95. And the movie ain't too shabby, either. There is no doubt that with HD DVD releases like this, Blu-ray really has to start delivering the goods if it hopes to win the high-def format war.