A great piece of acting can knock the hell out of tainted preconceptions. Or, in the case of Ray, director Taylor Hackford’s electrifying take on the joyous art and pained soul of Ray Charles, it can move a film from the shoals of biopic banality to the heights of inspiration. Jamie Foxx gets so far inside the man and his music that he and Ray Charles seem to breathe as one.
Foxx’s fierce, funny, deeply felt performance deserves to be legendary. And he doesn’t stop at technical wizardry. A skilled pianist, Foxx does Charles proud on the keyboard. And though he only moves his lips to Charles’ vocals on hits such as “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say,” “Unchain My Heart” and “Georgia on My Mind,” Foxx shifts from song to conversation with an ease that suggests channeling instead of mimicry. Foxx never stoops to tear-jerking as he cuts to the emotional core of Charles’ story — his dirt-poor Georgia roots, his blindness since age seven, his battles with racism, his infidelities, his ruthless business dealings and his twenty-year heroin addiction.
Ray Charles, from his birth in 1930 to his death from liver disease in June, was a handful. His laundress mama, strongly played by Sharon Warren, never coddled him, even after Ray saw his brother drown in a tub of boiling wash water. And when blindness overtook Ray, she taught him to lean on his other senses. These flashbacks could have been maudlin, but Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman), in top form, gives them a hard clarity that explains why Charles offered his trust rarely and never used a cane or a dog.
The early scenes of Ray on the road, making his name playing jazz in Seattle and insisting on being paid in singles so he could count them, are evocative and telling. Charles, who blended gospel and blues to become the genius of soul, became the genius of negotiation, dumping his mentors at Atlantic Records — Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff) — for ABC-Paramount so he could own his masters.
Foxx doesn’t flinch at showing how Charles could flash a childlike smile or hug himself with joy to mask a harsh agenda. His wife Della Bea (the magnificent Kerry Washington) had to endure his jones for junk and sleeping around. Charles could tell what kind of body a woman had by fondling her wrist, and he fondled a lot of wrists. Regina King is dynamite as Margie Hendricks, the volatile backup singer Charles hooked and discarded. he script, by Hackford and newcomer James L. White, doesn’t always avoid tripping up on the trite, and at two and a half hours, the film is long and occasionally long-winded. But Hackford has the wisdom to go where the music takes him, and Foxx rides this winner to glory. Brother Ray is in very good hands.