An uncannily fine performance by Jamie Foxx provides solid footing for “Ray,” a rangy, straightforward and entirely engrossing biopic of the late Ray Charles. Bursting at the seams with music, Taylor Hackford’s ambitious film provides a good sense of the pioneering entertainer’s extraordinary journey and brings it to life with plenty of colorful detail. Fittingly for the story of one of the first black crossover pop musicians, “Ray” possesses widespread crossover B.O. appeal of its own across the audience spectrum, which, boosted by critical accolades, indicates a very potent commercial future for this estimable Universal release.
With the singer’s support, Hackford tried for 15 years to find backing for this project, which clearly wouldn’t have been worth doing unless the right actor existed for the central part. With his performance here, Foxx’s quick ascent to the top of the Hollywood talent list is complete, as he socks over and completely convinces in the difficult part of a blind, driven and tragedy-scarred musical genius. Role’s made even more challenging by public familiarity with the real man, who died only three months ago at age 73.
But even the singer-pianist-composer’s millions of fans will be surprised by much of what they learn here, which isn’t the entire story, to be sure, but still provides a potent sampling of Charles’ demons, faults and addictions to go along with the charm, talent and strength of character.
Although Hackford and first-time screenwriter James L. White parcel out key elements of youthful backstory in brief snippets through much of the tale, narrative encompasses the key points in a mostly orderly fashion: how Ray Charles Robinson was born into abject poverty in Georgia in 1930; how he watched his brother die in a freak drowning accident, then was tortured with guilt over it for years; how he lost his sight within two years of the accident, when he was 7, and was sent away to a school for the blind by his hard-working mother, who then died, leaving him an orphan.
Main action picks up in 1948, when Ray was 17 and made a trip alone across country to join the burgeoning Seattle jazz scene. The first person he meets off the bus is local teen Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate), and Ray’s music quickly catches on at a local dive where he’s taken advantage of, sexually and financially, by his first manager.
While Ray got around extremely well — he never used a cane or dog, and always said his blindness made his sense of hearing much more acute — one area where he had to depend upon others was in contracts and money. Pic reveals how early experience at being cheated (he always insisted upon being paid in one dollar bills, so he could count them) eventually made him into one of the toughest businessmen in his field.
After cutting his first record and dropping his real last name due to the fame of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Ray discovered heroin while touring with Lowell Fulson. It was an addiction that lasted until the mid-’60s, and that he only kicked when his wife made him realize he’d probably lose his career if he didn’t.
His other addiction was women. From his earliest gigs, the ladies lined up to get close to this swaying, oddly sensual blind man, whose amusing way of checking women out — he felt their wrists, then on up their arms — is nicely observed. Marriage to young gospel singer Della Bea (Kerry Washington) doesn’t for a moment stop him from fooling around on the road, but through endless affairs, especially with blues singer Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and volatile backup singer Margie Hendricks (Regina King), Della Bea stuck with him and raised their kids. (Pic doesn’t come near accounting, however, for the 12 children he sired overall.)
While Ray can imitate any type of music, it’s Della Bea who challenges him to find his own style, which he does by the early ’50s by combining R&B and gospel influences into something that was too sexy for traditionalists but put him on the road to No. 1 hits, first in R&B and ultimately, with “Georgia on My Mind” in 1960, on the pop charts.
The film finds a good balance between the personal and the professional, as well as between the winning and the difficult aspects of the subject’s character. With women and business, Ray always puts his own interests first; as supportive and personally friendly as Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff) are shown to be at Atlantic, the label on which he became famous in the ’50s, he nevertheless abandons them in 1959 when ABC Paramount meets his demand to own his masters.
And he drops Jeff Brown (Clifton Brown), the manager who came up with him on the Chitlin Circuit, when he thinks he’s being cheated and summarily replaces him with the sophisticated and efficient Joe Adams (Harry Lennix).
Through the ’40s and ’50s, Ray is depicted as being no more willing to acknowledge racism as a barrier to success than he does his blindness. But in 1961, he abruptly decides he will no longer play for segregated audiences in the South, which prompts his native state to ban him from performing. Except for a coda set in 1979 in which Ray receives an apology from Georgia, pic avoids third-act problems by ending the chronology in 1966, when he responds to a drug arrest and threatened prison term by going clean.
As if the eventful story and charged performances were not enough, music constantly amplifies the events, as Hackford and music supervisor Curt Sobel have shrewdly used Ray Charles recordings, both original and newly prepared, to rep both his far-ranging musical tastes — his proclivity for country is amply stressed — and his feelings. Soundtrack is terrific, and Foxx does an amazing job mimicking the man’s unique mannerisms at the piano and microphone.
For all of its qualities, the film has an even-keeled feel from beginning to end; its prosaic style makes everything go down easily, but doesn’t endow the picture with intense drama, the exhilarating highs or gut-wrenching lows that the story itself offers. All the same, it’s one of Hackford’s best pieces of work.
With Foxx leading the way, performances are strong across the board, with Washington, Ellis and King each memorable in their own ways; Powell and Bokeem Woodbine, the latter as Ray’s longtime sax player Fathead Newman, lending sustained support throughout, and Sharon Warren summoning up scary intensity as Ray’s worked-to-the-bone mother. C.J. Sanders does an exceptional job with what had to be the difficult challenge of expressing young Ray’s traumas over watching his brother die, going blind and being sent away by his mother.
Shot largely in Louisiana and decked out handsomely but without ostentation, pic unfussily evokes many locales, from the red clay of North Florida to the luxury of Ray’s ultimate Los Angeles manse and all the stops in between.