Biopics are one of the trickiest genres in cinema because it’s difficult to condense someone’s entire life into a two-hour time frame. As a result, most biopics are episodic in nature. However, a smart filmmaker can use this to his or her advantage; if the episodes are strung together in such a way that they make a larger point, the finished product can be as enlightening as it is entertaining. A good example of how to do it right is Ray, director Taylor Hackford’s film about the late, great Ray Charles.
Jamie Foxx plays the title role in a performance that is certain to give him an Oscar nomination. Early in the movie, we see Ray as a young man, heading off to the city to play piano in blues and jazz groups. Outside of one club, he meets a young trumpet player named Quincy Jones (who obviously becomes an important part of Ray’s life later on). After a period of time playing on the “Chitlin Circuit,” Ray meets a man named Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong), who signs him to Atlantic records. Ray’s style is to combine R&B with gospel, an approach that offends some traditionalists, but meets with wide approval from general audiences. Over the years, the musician incorporates other unlikely styles of music – such as country – but manages to maintain his popularity and eventually forge a very lucrative deal for himself with another label.
In addition to documenting his amazing career, Ray also explores Charles’ personal life. As a young man, he meets Della Bea (Kerry Washington) and marries her. She soon becomes pregnant. However, Ray is a womanizer and begins affairs with a couple of his backup singers, most notably Margie Hendricks (Regina King), with whom he also fathers a child. Additionally, Ray is introduced to heroin by some of his fellow musicians and becomes a longtime addict.
Much of the pain Ray Charles felt in life came from his childhood (shown in flashbacks) during which he watched helplessly as his brother drowned in a wash tub. The resulting trauma, more than anything, appeared to have caused his blindness. Despite this disability, Ray was not stupid – an attribute others foolishly tried to assign him. Determined not to be a victim, he engaged in what he called “country dumb”: pretending to be a hick, then striking out at those who underestimated him.
Like most biopics, Ray tries to cram in so many important elements of its subject’s life that it almost feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of Ray Charles. And while the film pulls no punches in depicting the bad as well as the good, some things invariably get left out. (The picture makes it seem like he only had two children when, in fact, he had twelve.)
This does not detract from the movie’s quality, however. Ray takes all these parts of a life and career, then combines them in a meaningful way. What we are left with is the realization that Ray Charles was a true pioneer. He combined types of music that had never been combined, thereby influencing artists for generations to come. He broke down racial barriers by fighting segregation, and also by appealing to listeners of all racial demographics. The film leaves us with an impression that Ray Charles was one of the artists who mattered most in the history of recorded music.
In the title role, Jamie Foxx is nothing short of a revelation. Because he is a classically trained pianist, Foxx is shown playing piano in the film, which lends the performance an air of authenticity. He also nails Ray’s persona. Let’s face it – we all know what Ray Charles looked like, what he sounded like, and how he moved. Foxx does more than mimic Charles; he inhabits him. I totally forgot that I was watching Jamie Foxx, rather than the real Ray Charles. (For the record, Ray’s actual voice is heard during the musical numbers, although I bet Foxx could have done that credibly too.) With his star-making performances in August’s Collateral and now this one, Foxx gets my vote for 2004’s Actor of the Year.
There is much to like about Ray. The acting is first-rate. Director Hackford portrays things like the Chitlin Circuit and the music business with an eye for detail that really makes us feel like we’re there. And of course the music is just phenomenal. I’ve been a Ray Charles fan for years. It’s rewarding to see a biopic that doesn’t sugarcoat anything yet still has a lot of love and affection for such a brilliant musician.
( out of four)
Ray is rated PG-13 for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.
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