As a young, dirt poor southern boy slowly going blind, Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) was taught from the beginning that if he wanted anything out of life, he had to make it on his own, without playing on sympathy. Blessed with outstanding piano and vocal talents, Ray made a name for himself on the “chitlin’” circuit of the 1950s, where his hits lead him to money and more women than he knew what to do with (including Kerry Washington and Regina King). As his popularity soared, so did Ray’s dependency on drugs and trouble, which almost lead to his incarceration. Only music managed to soothe Ray’s soul, with the master constructing decades of hits that kept him in the spotlight.
To write about “Ray” is to write about Jamie Foxx. The often maligned actor (and for good reasons, *cough* “Booty Call”) gets his second chance to shine in 2004 with this widespread, scattershot bio-pic, and Foxx takes the challenge of bringing this music legend to life very seriously. This is an immersive performance, taking simple mimicry to a completely new level. Foxx inhabits Charles like it was his own skin, leading with the musician’s body movements and musical joy. Ray’s trademark sunglasses help Foxx immensely too, for without them, in one short scene at the end of the film, the spell is broken. Building off his concrete work in Michael Mann’s summer hit, “Collateral,” Foxx takes his acting career to the next level with “Ray,” often single-handedly keeping the film afloat with his magnetism, accuracy, and natural gift for recreating the sublime Ray Charles experience.
The tough thing about “Ray” is that it has a hard time keeping up with Foxx’s momentum. The film, a lifelong dream project for director Taylor Hackford (“Proof of Life,” “The Devil’s Advocate”), is an immense enterprise, trying to take in over 70 years of Charles’s life. However, the film should really be titled, “Ray .5,” for even a luxurious 150 minute running time can only get Hackford halfway through the legend’s life.
What’s there in “Ray” is a good introduction to Charles’s life and his working habits up until the mid-1960s. The film covers his blindness, music, women, and heroin, and that’s as far as the screenplay goes. What’s missing are the pieces of the life that fit in between; the very pieces that help bio-pics step away from a nagging episodic feel. The story in “Ray” advances chronologically in years, but the drama is often spread everywhere. One minute Ray’s wife (Kerry Washington) is disapproving of her husband’s extramarital affairs, the next she’s shown as shocked when one of his seemingly clandestine girlfriends dies. Was there some type of uneasy three-way relationship there throughout the yearsr Ray’s drug abuse is a central point for the entire film, yet when he decides to kick the habit, the audience is treated to a horrendously staged withdrawal sequence, then a card that reads “and he never touched heroin again.” I can only imagine the real Ray struggled with his addiction in a more complicated way. “Ray” leaves the audience with an excess of questions, like the ones posed above, that Hackford isn’t ready to answer.
“Ray” consistently plays cartoon with its characters (the requisite southern racists are all hog-faced, apple-cheeked rednecks) and situations to a point where all the nonsense takes away from the real reason the film was made: to explore the musical genius of Ray Charles. The creative moments, as brief as they end up becoming, are the heart and soul of the picture. When Hackford can be pulled away from the clumsy domestic melodrama, he has a wonderful eye getting into Ray’s creative vortex, and letting the audience watch Foxx have a field day with the songs. The inspiration behind “Hit The Road, Jack” will bring the house down alone. It’s a shame that music doesn’t lead the soul of “Ray” as much as it did in his real life.
It’s tough to say whether the audience will come out of “Ray” with any clear understanding of what made the man, the myth, and the legend truly tick. In this, the year of his death, “Ray” does provide a sweet reminder of the power of Charles’s music, and if that’s all the film can really offer, that isn’t such a bad deal after all.Rating: B-