One of America’s best-loved musicians, the late Ray Charles deserved a big-screen biography that did justice to his incredible life and career -- and he got it, thanks to director Taylor Hackford and star Jamie Foxx. There’s rarely been a biopic that’s done a better job of capturing its subject’s essence, which is why Ray can be forgiven its occasional departures from the historical record. The film doesn’t simply present the hit songs and other professional triumphs, although those are extremely well represented; it delves into the psyche of Ray Charles Robinson, whose destiny was shaped by back-to-back childhood traumas: his brother’s accidental death by drowning, which Ray witnessed; and his sudden descent into blindness a few years later. Driven by his poor but proud mother to succeed despite his handicap, the boy gets an education and becomes a talented musician who eventually carves out an amazing career. Hackford faithfully illuminates scripter James L. White’s biographical narrative, which posits that Ray’s subsequent excesses, including heroin addiction and marital infidelity, sprang from the tremendous guilt he felt for not saving his brother’s life. The film also depicts the difficulty a black musician had in playing white towns during the latter days of the Jim Crow era, which Charles helped end by flexing his increasing cultural muscle. Hackford does not skimp, though, on depicting the spectacular successes that elevated Charles to iconic status, first as a rhythm-and-blues star and then as an innovator who fused R&B and gospel music into soul. The film ends in 1966, but it features many of the songs for which Charles was best known, including “What’d I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind.” Although he’s lip-syncing to the Charles vocal tracks, Foxx perfectly replicates the musician’s stage manner and body language: You’ll swear you’re watching the genuine article in action. Very nearly as good are Kerry Washington as Ray’s long-suffering wife, Della Bea; Regina King as his backup singer and lover Margie Hendricks; Clifton Powell as close friend and business associate Jeff Brown; Curtis Armstrong as record producer Ahmet Ertegun; and Larenz Tate as the young Quincy Jones. The movie doesn’t spare Ray by glossing over his most egregious failings, but it reaches an uplifting climax by showing his recovery from heroin addiction and, more important, his unburdening of the guilt he had long shouldered over his brother’s death. Extraordinarily moving and ultimately inspiring, Ray is among the very best films of this type Hollywood has ever turned out.
Taylor Hackford's Ray is at heart little more than a run-of-the mill biopic that hits all the familiar story points for that genre. What keeps this film from becoming totally pedestrian is the fierce, commanding performance of Jamie Foxx. This is not an impersonation of Ray Charles, nor is it a vain attempt to bask in the glow of Charles the celebrity. Foxx finds difficult emotional places to go to, and his Ray Charles is often more interesting than the one Hackford seems to want to tell the audience about. One can believe that these amazing songs are coming from this man, and that may be the biggest compliment one can pay to the performance. That point also leads to the other aspect of the film that keeps it afloat: the superb music. The film was made with Charles' approval, and he allowed the filmmakers to use his original recordings. Had this been a play, a one-man show with the same music, it would make for a fascinating and memorable evening. As he always does, Hackford fills his film with convention after convention, and in doing so, undercuts the real and complicated issues apparent both in Foxx and in the music.
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