Rarely does a big-screen biography appear just months after the subject’s death. Nevertheless, that's the case with “Ray,” which was shown to Ray Charles (who apparently approved of it) shortly before he died in June.
He collaborated on the soundtrack, his voice was used in most of the songs, yet the result is far from a hagiography. It’s a warts-and-all portrait, clearly depicting Charles’ heroin addiction, his open promiscuity, and his unnervingly aggressive approach to business transactions.
Jamie Foxx gives a breakthrough performance in the role. Good as he was in the recent “Collateral,” his impersonation of Charles is uncanny. It’s all there: the shyly ingratiating manner, the gentle swaying back and forth, the perpetual wide-screen smile (and the tough businessman behind it).
“I can mime damn near anybody,” says Foxx playing Charles, and for a moment you wonder if Foxx is talking about himself or simply playing the part of another gifted mimic. Foxx is an experienced pianist, his voice is occasionally used for Charles’ songs, and the blending of personalities and techniques seems entirely natural.
The director and co-writer, Taylor Hackford, has made several savvy music films (“The Idolmaker,” “Hail! Hail! Rock n Roll”), and he’s given “Ray” a seductive surface polish. What he can’t do is break away from the conventions of the biography format; the script springs few surprises, and the 153-minute movie lurches from year to year, rarely finding a place for even an entire musical number to play out.
Part of the problem is that the other characters don’t register strongly. Flashbacks to a childhood trauma are inserted frequently, and they establish Charles’ mother (Sharron Warren) as a poor woman who worked herself to death. But aside from a moving episode in which she encourages her son to accept his blindness (Charles lost his eyesight when he was 7), she comes off as a familiar type.
The same thing happens with Charles’ long-suffering wife (Kerry Washington), his mistresses, his managers and mentors, most of whom could have walked over from the set of “Lady Sings the Blues” or “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” or any number of similar show-biz biographies. Only Larenz Tate’s playful impersonation of Quincy Jones stands out as a quirky original.
Perhaps the most original aspect of “Ray” is its casual attitude toward drugs. While Charles gets his share of “just say no” lectures from his worried wife and managers, the movie subversively shows us something else: a junkie musician who worked quite successfully for years before he was forced to give up heroin. As he proudly points out, he’s never late for work.
The script is also relatively creative about treating the racism that slowed Charles’ progress. In an early scene, Charles mercilessly manipulates a bigoted veteran by charming him into believing that he lost his eyesight on Omaha Beach.
When the time comes for him to boycott segregated concerts in Georgia, Charles is deeply uncertain. The filmmakers show him struggling with the issue, then deciding to embrace the opportunity to join the civil-rights movement. It’s a thrilling, joyous moment.