UNIVERSAL/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/153 Mins./Rated PG-13
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Aunjanue Ellis, Harry Lennix, Terrence Dashon Howard, Larenz Tate, Bokeem Woodbine, Sharon Warren, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff, C.J. Sanders, Wendell Pierce, Chris Thomas King, David Krumholtz, Warwick Davis, Patrick Bauchau, Robert Wisdom, Denise Dowse, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Rick Gomez, Kurt Fuller.
Credits: Directed by Taylor Hackford. Screenplay by James L. White. Story by Hackford, White. Produced by Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin, Hackford, Stuart Benjamin. Director of photography: Pawel Edelman. Production designer: Stephen Altman. Edited by Paul Hirsch. Music by Craig Armstrong. Original and new recordings: Ray Charles. Costume designer: Sharen Davis. Executive producers: William J. Immerman, Jaime Rucker King. Co-producers: Ray Charles Robinson, Jr., Alise Benjamin, Nick Morton. A Universal Pictures and Bristol Bay Prods. presentation of an Anvil Films production, in association with Baldwin Entertainment.
Though he died in June, Ray Charles reigns as one of the leading stars of the fall entertainment season. His final album of duets with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and Elton John is a top ten hit, and the long-gestating biopic Ray is sure to earn an Oscar nomination for the gifted Jamie Foxx. Brimming over with irresistible musical numbers that remind us what a recording giant Charles was, this lively picture should cross over to a wide audience, just like its pioneering namesake.
The music, and Foxx’s uncanny impersonation of the familiar Charles mannerisms, are the strengths of the movie. But Ray can’t avoid what I call “biopic hazard,” the inevitable fact that the shape of the life determines the shape of the film. Thus, the most dramatic elements of Charles’ life fall on the tiny shoulders of C.J. Sanders, the young actor who plays Ray as a child. In compelling flashbacks, we witness the boy’s impoverished life in 1930s Georgia, the trauma of a freak drowning accident that took his younger brother, and Ray’s own frightening struggle with the loss of his sight at age seven. (Sharon Warren is a potent presence in these scenes as Ray’s formidable mother, Aretha.)
The adult Ray’s journey, though buffeted by racism and drug dependency, pales next to these early tragedies. Indeed, Charles’ talent and charisma help him glide past obstacles that would have felled mere musical mortals. Even his longtime heroin addiction doesn’t seem to impact his professionalism or his creative fire. Surprisingly, in light of the singer’s cooperation, this is a warts-and-all portrait, never shying from the married Charles’ compulsive womanizing or his drug habit. But novice screenwriter James L. White has trouble finding the thread that would pull Charles’ mature years into a tight narrative form. (At 153 minutes, the film feels a good half-hour too long.)
Still, from scene to scene, Ray is often immensely enjoyable. The narrative begins in 1948, with the 17-year-old musician getting his first gig at a Seattle club and becoming the boy toy of the joint’s lusty manager—who proceeds to cheat him. Burned by that experience, Charles evolves into a canny businessman while searching for the musical style that will define him. His marriage to wholesome gospel singer Della Bea (Kerry Washington) influences his breakthrough melding of gospel and R&B—but that debt doesn’t stop him from fooling around on the road.
The narrative periodically gets a lift from scenes depicting the creation of some of Charles’ most celebrated numbers—the improv time-filler that became “What’d I Say,” or the fight with backup singer/lover Margie Hendricks (Regina King) that inspired “Hit the Road, Jack.” Less involving is the minutiae of Ray’s split with Atlantic Records (and early boosters Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, winningly played by Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff) and his switch to a slick new manager, Joe Adams (Harry Lennix).
Director Taylor Hackford compensates for the sometimes slack storyline with fast transitions and a vibrant feel for the ’50s and ’60s. (The film takes Charles’ career up to 1966, when he kicked heroin following a drug arrest.) Also keeping things robust is a uniformly good cast, led by the remarkable Foxx. The former “In Living Color” comic follows his acclaimed performance in this summer’s Collateral with a rich replication of Ray Charles’ body language and speaking style and persuasive lip-synching to old and new Charles recordings. He also captures the complex mix of charm, dynamism, pain and selfishness that make Charles a fascinating figure beyond his personal musical revolution. Without this foxy performance, it’s hard to imagine a movie called Ray.