Regarding movies, a terrific stretch of acting can wake even the most desultory audience members out of their slumber. Bad movies are still bad, but the suffering is lessened when a performer latches onto a characters quirks and runs with them. Banal becomes boisterous. Ray might not be everything director Taylor Hackford believed he was making, but Foxx goes so deeply inside the man and his music that he and Ray Charles seem to be one unique person.
Foxxs stunning, occasionally humorous, often daring, and always honestly felt performance is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Hes that good. A skilled pianist and music-maker in his own right, Foxx honors Charles with his keyboard work. And in a smart decision, Foxx doesnt sing on the soundtrack, but lip-syncs to Charles foot-stomping vocals on hits such as Unchain My Heart, I Got a Woman, Georgia On My Mind, and Whatd I Say. When he isnt singing, Foxx easily shifts from song to dialogue with a grace and believability that suggests hes channeling Charles instead of mimicking him. He also avoids faux acting notes, never reducing the singers hardscrabble childhood to tear-jerking silliness. Instead, Foxx gets close to the bone, cutting to the solid emotional core of Charles life story: his dirt-poor Georgia roots, his blindness from glaucoma around the age of seven, his marital infidelities, his battles with racism, his 20-year heroin addiction, and his ruthless business dealings. Early in his career, after one music promoter stiffed him in the cash department, Charles insisted that he be paid in singles, thus being able to count his pay without worrying about being cheated.
From his birth in 1930 to his recent death from liver disease, Charles was a tough customer and a handful to both raise and live with. His mother, well played by Sharon Warren, took in laundry, and no matter how difficult times were, she never coddled her son, even after he became blind, believing as she did that he needed to experience life as it rolled out. Using flashbacks that sometimes get away from director Hackford, the movie never hesitates to reveal the roughness of Charles existence. He saw his brother drown in a tub of boiling wash water. When blindness overtook Ray, his mother insisted he lean on his other senses. These moments give the film a harsh reality, but lets us know why the older Charles rarely offered trust to others and never, ever, used a red-tipped cane or a guide dog. The flashbacks have impact, but there are too many of them and the framing of the film gets fragmented. Hackford, director of An Officer And A Gentleman and La Bamba among other works, crams an awful lot into the movies 152-minute running time. Unfortunately far too much of it deals with what would be considered early Ray Charles and not enough flows about the successful period of the singers career, the years when he was an icon. Weirdly, the film ends with a jolt. Suddenly its over and there are title cards to report on what seems like 40 years of Charles amazing life. This is absolutely unsatisfying and raises key questions about the movie. Should there have been less material about all the women in his life? The point that he cheated on his wife is made and understood. The heroin addiction sequences seem endless and a tad goofy. There were moments when it actually seemed as if Hackford made the dumb decision to shake the camera to represent drug mania. Either that, or the special effects are so amateurish that it looks as if the cameras being shaken. Where the movie scores high is with the scenes of Charles and his music, as when hes on the road making a name for himself playing vibrant jazz in Seattle, and, as mentioned, demanding that singles comprise his payment. Charles, who brilliantly blended the blues and gospel music to become the genius of soul, also had the savvy intuition to become a negotiation genius. He has a rigid toughness and a genuine, almost sublime, understanding of his worth. The sequence where he gets rid of his powerful mentors at Atlantic Records (Jerry Wexler played by Richard Schiff and Ahmet Ertegun played by Curtis Armstrong) and replaces them for a new label (ABC-Paramount), so he could own the master recordings, is solid stuff.
As for Foxx, watch him as he shows how Charles could flash a childlike smile or hug himself with joy to mask the harshness found in his personality. You admire both Foxxs acting and the fact that Charles has goals he was determined to achieve. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task. Charles wife Della Bea, beautifully acted by Kerry Washington, had to endure the pains of being married to a man who slept around and around and around. Charles loved women, and he could tell what kind of body a female had by fondling her wrist. Regina King is fantastic as Margie Hendricks, the tempestuous backup singer Charles had sex with and then discarded. The weaknesses in Ray are the result of a screenplay by Hackford and newcomer James L. White that occasionally wallows in trivial cliches and the feature runs on too long or seems to because of the aforementioned emphasis on drugs and sex. Fortunately, the music breaks through and Foxxs stirring performance captures just enough of Ray Charles to make the movie accessible and entertaining. The first time you hear Charles singing, you cant help but appreciate the sounds, and if you listen to the lyrics, youll hear wonderful stories in those songs. The film pulls you in right away. Its weaknesses with a surfeit of biographical cliches are greatly overcome when it dramatizes Charles musical influences. When Ray examines the changes in Charles style and how his fans reacted to these changes and delighted in them, when it exalts in the glory of his music, it soars. At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, there was huge buzz about two movies. One was Sideways, an offbeat tale about two middle-aged guys heading for wine country before the marriage of one of them; sort of a buddy road movie for adults. The other hot topic was Ray, a biographical picture (or biopic in the trade) about legendary singer-songwriter Ray Charles. The latter film got festival heat because of Jamie Foxxs outstanding performance as Charles, an acting job that is less an impersonation that a wildly convincing reincarnation.