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RAY – Craig Armstrong

October 29, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

rayOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Ray Charles, who died on 10 June 2004, was inarguably one of the pioneers of “black” music of the 20th century. Born in extreme poverty in Georgia in 1930, and struck blind by glaucoma at the age of six, Charles overcame obstacles which would stop lesser men in their tracks and became a giant of music. By fusing Gospel music with jazz and rock & roll, he virtually invented a new style of music. With his soulful piano playing and unique vocal delivery, he won legions of fans, who bought records such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “What’d I Say” in droves. Jamie Foxx plays Charles in director Taylor Hackford’s biopic of the great man, and has been receiving accolades galore for his realistic, brave portrayal. The film, which also stars Kerry Washington, Regina King and Clifton Powell, looks set to become a major player at the 2004 Academy Awards, with all eyes on Foxx as a potential Best Actor nominee.

As one would imagine, music plays a massive part in Ray. Music supervisor Curt Sobel arranged for the soundtrack to feature many of Charles’s classic performances, and the widely available song CD features 15 of these, ranging from the upbeat classic “Mess Around” to a moving performance of Charles’s signature song, “Georgia On My Mind”. For the film’s score, Hackford went to composer Craig Armstrong to fill in the blanks around the songs – something the Scotsman is used to doing, having previously worked on Baz Luhrmann’s song-heavy films Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge.

Armstrong’s score is an intriguing mix of styles, combining his familiar orchestral palette with a soft choir, Gospel vocals, and a wandering piano that changes in style from classically beautiful to rhythm & blues. The two centerpieces of the score are “Ray’s Theme” and the theme for his wife of 20 years, Della. The former is a pseudo-religious theme overlaid with both classical choral and cooing male Gospel vocals; the latter is more traditionally romantic, a combination of a warm solo piano with a soft orchestral wash, attractive but subdued. Unfortunately, neither theme is really strong enough to leave a lasting impression: they are certainly pleasant enough, but there’s no hook, no catch on which to hang the rest of the score.

Fragments of the themes re-occur in other later cues, notably “Ray and Della”, “Ray Leaves Della Behind” and the lovely “Della Kisses Her Baby”, but for all their gentle appeal, they never really offer anything fresh, and do not linger in the memory afterwards. The tones are all identifiably Armstrongian in texture, bringing to mind the work he did on Romeo + Juliet and, occasionally, Plunkett & Macleane, but they somehow seem more restrained, more ‘in the background’ than other scores. It’s almost as though Armstrong had toomuch respect for Charles’s memory.

Armstrong’s third major theme, entitled “Ray’s Hymn”, does not appear fully until the end of album. After a fleeting appearance in “Redemption”, the theme – a soft, emotional, soulful piano melody augmented by strings – brings a sense of conclusion and hope to the album’s finale, and is easily the score’s most satisfying element.

Arguably the most interesting cues are the three entitled “Dreams of Ray”, in which Armstrong engages in some quite modern electronic composing replete with drum loops and licks and ambient synthesized tones. Quite how these anachronistic tracks fit in with the rest of the score is unknown – they bear no resemblance to any of the thematic content elsewhere on the album – but as standalone pieces they are certainly enjoyable, ranging in tone and style from harsh and driving to what can only be described as ‘urban chillout music’.

Other cues of note include “George Drowns”, which uses the Gospel vocals for a whole new dramatic purpose; the intriguingly distorted “Rehab”, written obviously as a musical depiction of Charles’s traumatic attempts to kick his drug habit; and the “End Credits” sequence, which mixes Ray’s theme with a modern electronic drum beat, turning it into a distant cousin of Armstrong’s theme from The Bone Collector.

The album’s one drawback – in addition to the generally underwhelming nature of the music – is the increasingly irritating dialogue samples Armstrong has inexplicably chosen to lay on top of his music. While I’m sure that, in the context of the film, an infant Ray crying desperately for his mama packs an emotional wallop, on CD it simply detracts from the quality of the music and does little more than annoy the listener. Tracks such as “Heroin in Bed”, “Places You Don’t Wanna Go” and “Arrested”, despite each being around a minute in length, contain some interesting dissonances that stand at odds with the rest of the score, but are almost completely obscured by dialogue so you can’t hear what’s going on.

It must have been difficult for Armstrong to compose the score for Ray, knowing that his music was going to have to complement yet not overwhelm the music of the film’s subject, which quite rightly needed to take center stage. The end result is a score which, while enjoyable enough in its own right, never really comes alive: in the end, it plays something like a watered down of Armstrong’s earlier, more accomplished works.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Ray’s Theme (3:38)
  • Della’s Theme (4:44)
  • Ray Learns to Listen (3:03)
  • Dreams of Ray I (3:02)
  • Remember Your Promise (0:56)
  • Water In the Hallway (0:51)
  • Ray’s Theme – Piano (2:21)
  • George Drowns (1:06)
  • First Hit (0:47)
  • Ray and Della (1:26)
  • Ray Sings to Della (1:05)
  • Dreams of Ray II (3:49)
  • Ray Leaves Della Behind (1:07)
  • Heroin in Bed (0:46)
  • Della Kisses Her Baby (1:53)
  • Places You Don’t Wanna Go (0:46)
  • Ray Leaves Mother (1:42)
  • Arrested (1:09)
  • Alone In The Dark (0:59)
  • Dreams of Ray III (4:53)
  • Marge’s Death (1:22)
  • Rehab (2:20)
  • Redemption (1:39)
  • Ray’s Hymn (1:45)
  • Ray’s Hymn – Quintet (1:26)
  • End Credits (2:02)

Running Time: 50 minutes 51 seconds

Atlantic/Rhino/WMC R2-78480 (2004)

Music composed by Craig Armstrong. Conducted by Cecilia Weston. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley and Craig Armstrong. Featured musical soloists Simon Chamberlain and Craig Armstrong. Special vocal performances by Billie Godfrey. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Curt Sobel. Album produced by Craig Armstrong, Taylor Hackford and David Donaldson.

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