Ray (2004)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Jamie Foxx
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Musical Numbers, Featurettes

We have all heard and read about how amazing "Ray" is, and how absolutely staggering Jamie Foxx’s performance is in the movie, and yet, it is hard to really appreciate or understand the accolades the film is showered until you have seen it for yourself. And I agree, "Ray" is a real gem inside and out. It is one of the most amazing and fascinating films have ever seen, hands down. Universal Home Entertainment has now released the film as a 2-disc Special Edition that I eagerly examined in more details.

"Ray" tells the story of Ray Charles, the music visionary and entertainment powerhouse who had a career spanning well over 50 years before passing away last year. 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 always a man stricken with flaws like each of us, but also a man of 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. 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 equally long time.

The performances in the film are also 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 clearly has 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, 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.

Universal Home Entertainment has prepared a special edition for this incredible movie but I am sorry to report that the only think special about this "special edition" is how dramatically unspecial it is. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD and the transfer is meticulously clean, without grain or blemishes. However, the DVD also contains an extended cut of the film and it is here where Universal completely dropped the ball for the first time on this release. In a desperate attempt to get the DVD out in the market in record time and before the Oscars, it is clear that Universal has no clue about making a good DVD any more. The extended footage in this release has been edited into the film – whoohoo what a step forward from some of their previous releases where you had to press an additional button to actually get to see the extended footage every time it should have been inserted in the scenes. However, the extended footage is non-<$16x9,anamorphic>, screwing up the ratio and image dimensions completely when viewing the DVD on an <$16x9,anamorphic> TV set. The way the new footage is edited into the film is also a slipshot job as it is not seamless at all, but starts and ends in the middle of shots, repeating parts of the same shot, etc. To top it off however, no one has even bothered to color correct or color time the image, basically inserting absolutely untreated, shoddy work print-quality stretches of film into the movie. If anything screams "pathetic" this has got to be it. Fire the guy who’s responsible for this blasphemy at once! There is no excuse whatsoever that could explain this, other than the fact that Universal simply doesn’t give a damn about the film, the filmmakers and their customers. Considering that Universal used to be one of the leading DVD publishers some 5 years ago or so, this is an embarrassing display to what lows the studio has degraded to.
With that, it quickly becomes evident that the extended version of the film is unwatchable, so I reverted back to viewing the theatrical version. Here we are presented with an image that is rich in definition and awash in vibrant colors and hues. Never oversaturated the colors are sharply defined and create a wonderfully rich image. Black levels are deep and solid, rendering deep shadows that never break up. No edge-enhancement is noticeable and the compression is also without flaws.
The audio on the release comes as a wonderful <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> track that 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.

Being a 2-disc Special Edition the DVD promises a lot of cool extras, but this is where Universal drops the ball yet again. Even though there are a few nice supplements, a real "heart" is missing as you will see.

The DVD contains a <$commentary,commentary track> by director Taylor Hackford and it is probably the most valuable extra on the 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, 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. Well, maybe some day we will get a real extended version that makes it actually possible to view the film as it had been in Hackford’s mind without Universal’s hackjob mentality that makes it impossible to enjoy it on this DVD.

The second disc is dedicated to some featurettes, including complete uncut musical numbers form the film, which are, of course, mesmerizing. The highlight is a featurette on Jamie Foxx explaining 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 play them on the piano on 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 second 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 and reminds us just how big a hole Ray Charles’ departure has left. It will probably never be filled.

And that’s it. Two featurettes, <$commentary,commentary track> and deleted scenes is all you get. There is so much more to be said about the movie, Ray Charles’ life, his music, his legacy etc that it is incomprehensible that Universal stopped here. At the very least this DVD should have contained a proper "Making Of" documentary. Or a documentary relating original events to events seen in the film. How about some real footage of Charles balling out a musician live, in front of an audience? How about the real footage of Charles shining on the governor? How about a look at the place of his childhood as it is today? The possibilities are endless but I guess the people at Universal are just a tad too self-absorbed to realize that a film of this caliber deserves much better than their crude treatment.

Universal has redefined the word "inept" and "pathetic" with this release, so much is sure. The film itself is sensational and clearly one of the greatest movies I have ever seen, and the feature presentation of the theatrical version of the film on this DVD is top notch. It makes Universal’s hackjob DVD release all the more painful and I can only hope director Taylor Hackford will pick a studio for his next project that respects him and his work a little more than what is on display here. Shame on you, Universal. After shortchanging your DVD customers countless times in the past, now you’ve gone to a new low by even selling the filmmakers short. Way to go…