Ray (2004)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Tribute, Uncut Musical Numbers, Interviews, Trailer

The DVD version of "Ray" was a pretty sorry affair when it was released little more than a year ago so I was eager to see if at least the HD-DVD version would live up to expectation and finally give the movie the presentation it deserves.

I am sure you have all heard and read the accolades that "Ray" was showered with and how impressive Jamie Foxx's performance in the film is, but to be able to truly appreciate its mastery, you have to see the film for yourself. And I agree whole-heartedly – "Ray" is a real gem inside and out. It is one of the most amazing and fascinating films have ever seen, hands down.

It tells the story of Ray Charles, the music visionary and legendary entertainment powerhouse who had a career spanning well over 50 years before passing away in 2004. The movie chronicles his childhood, how he turned blind at an early age and adopted to his new environment, and how it helped shape his hearing, which ultimately made him one of the most interesting, versatile and extraordinary songwriters throughout the decades. His personal life and demons are also portrayed here without ever making Ray Charles superhuman, but instead always a man stricken with flaws like each of us, and also a man of strong character and an indomitable determination.

You could throw virtually any superlative at this film and it would be right. "Ray" is simply a movie experience like we don't get to witness them much any more. Emotional, human, heartfelt, funny, sad, lyrical, and full of incredible performances, this is a movie you have to see… and then see it again… and again. It makes Ray Charles so much more tangible, even to someone like me, who has been following his work for many, many years. This is not the blind man at the piano we see here. This is Ray Charles Robinson, the man who let nobody make him a cripple, the man who rewrote the book of modern music, the man who rewrote the book on the recording industry opening countless opportunities for musicians after him, the man who performed his music until his death. Ray Charles was a man whose influence will be felt in modern music for a long, long time to come, and he will be missed for an even longer time.

The performances in the film are simply staggering. You never actually get to see Jamie Foxx in the film. All you see is Ray Charles. Foxx has the part down so well that his own looks or personality never come through and all you really see is the character he is portraying. Who would have thought that Wanda from "In Living Color" would one day become one of the most amazing dramatic actors in a movie of such superlatives? What mercurial year it has been for Jamie Foxx, and well deservedly so. In his past movies he has clearly proven that he's not a one-trick pony and that he is poised and destined to become a superstar.

It would be unfair to only focus on Foxx's performance in this film however, as everyone excels to no end. Whether it's his fellow musicians, the ladies, his mother or his producers, every single cast member is as good as you could possibly wish they were.

The high definition transfer that Universal Home Entertainment is dishing out on this release is simply magnificent. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio the transfer is clean and free of any blemishes or defects. Since the studio did not try to incorporate the "extended" footage, like they did on the DVD, the problems that were inherent with that are altogether gone, making for a wonderful presentation of the feature film with a picture that is rich and highly detailed. The level of detail is simply stunning at times as every little bit of detail is visible, including even the most minute pores in the skin of the actors or small seams in the clothing. This is one of the transfers you look at and you immediately go "Wow!" as its inherent sharpness, vibrance and detail jumps right out at you.
Colors are magnificently vibrant and warm, adding to the atmosphere of the film and HD-DVD's increased color resolution seems to add even a bit more to the look of the film than the DVD did. Black levels in the transfer are superbly deep and solid, rendering deep shadows that never break up. Clearly, this is a reference transfer and shows us how a high quality high definition transfer can increase the viewing experience of a movie.

The audio on the release comes as a wonderful 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus track that puts the DVD's Dolby Digital track to shame in a sense. Through the increased bitrate the audio on this track is noticeably richer and has a much finer texture that was not evident in the previous presentations. Clarity and separation are truly remarkable here and bring the film to full life. It has always been my opinion that music films are so much better candidates for improved audio presentations than bombastic action flicks and "Ray" proves me right once again. The care then went into this mix is so perfectly and flawlessly reproduced here that is will drop your jaw. The audio is active and engaging, and makes great use of the surround channels. The sound field of the film is wide and very dynamic. It is used frequently to stress how Ray Charles must have been hearing certain things, and the track is making good use of this, narrowing in on particular sources of sound while the rest is fading to the background and the surrounds. It is a very cool effect that feels like it's really in-your-head. The musical numbers are powerful and with a good frequency response you almost feel as if you were sitting right next to Ray on the piano bench. Dialogues are well integrated and always understandable, never drowned out by the music or the sound effects.

Pretty much all of the DVD's special features from the "Limited Edition" that was released last year have been carried over to this dual-layer HD-DVD disc, starting out with the commentary track by director Taylor Hackford, which is probably the most valuable extra on the entire release. Filled with information on the production, anecdotes and tidbits, Hackford's conversational style will keep you in awe during every single minute as he relays his wealth of information. Whether he talks about Ray Charles himself, his participation in the movie, the cast ,the locations or the events depicted, Hackford always has something important, valuable and insightful to say, so make sure to check this commentary out.

14 deleted scenes are also included on the DVD running over 27 minutes, complete with optional commentary by the director. He points out that most of these scenes have been cut for time, not for quality and it's evident. Some of these scenes are real treasures that enhance the film and deepen the impact.

Also included are nine complete uncut musical numbers from the film, which are utterly mesmerizing and include a full version of "Hit The Road Jack." Next on the list is the featurette "Stepping Into The Part" in which Jamie Foxx explains how he got in character for the movie. It shows him working with Ray Charles in the studio as Charles is teaching him the songs so he can actually play them properly on the piano in the film. Foxx is an expert pianist who actually won a college scholarship in piano, so he was more than up for it, and the candid footage shows us an excited Ray Charles as he gradually discovers just how amazingly Jamie Foxx fits the bill and how great he will be portraying him on the screen. There is simply something fascinating about seeing Ray Charles' unencumbered joy, jumping around the studio in awe and amazement, completely happy and ecstatic about Jamie's skills and abilities. In a word – do not miss this featurette.

The next featurette on the disc has sadly a much more somber note, as it remembers Ray Charles. Many of his friends and collaborators remember the man who changed and touched their lives. It is a heartfelt tribute to one of music's greatest stars that can easily bring tears to your eyes and reminds us just how big a hole Ray Charles' departure has left. It will probably never be filled.

"A Look At Ray" is a 3-minute promo featurette while "The Women Of Ray" is a brief clip that gives the leading women in the film the chance to briefly talk about their experience of being involved in this film. "A Filmmaker's Journey" and "An American Story" are also included here, all culled from the "Ray: Limited Edition" and all very interesting to see.

"Ray" is a fascinating film and a much better release than the DVD Special Edition was. Thos of us who felt that the Limited Edition was overpriced now have the chance to see the extras that were included on this release on this great HD-DVD version, making "Ray" one of the few must-have titles in any HD-DVD collection as everything about it is pretty spectacular.