Ray (2004): Raw, Juicy Biopic of Ray Charles Starring Jamie Foxx in Oscar-Caliber Performance

The narrative structure of Ray, the new, juicy biopictue of the legendary musician Ray Charles, may be conventional with its familiar arch of the rise to fame, and overcoming obstacles before triumph. Nonetheless, there are many more elements that are unconventional and praiseworthy: Taylor Hackford’s ebullient direction, Jamie Foxx’s incandescent performance, and of course, Ray Charles’ intoxicating music, which is judiciously interspersed throughout the film.

It’s almost tempting to say that it was worth waiting all these years for Hackford to fulfill his dream and make a film about Ray Charles. Hackford’s passion for the subject–a true labor of love–shows in each and every frame of this picture, his best work since emerging two decades ago as the young director of An Officer and a Gentleman. In the current Hollywood scene, Hackford is a rarity: an unabashedly old-fashioned director with strong commercial instincts for popular entertainment.

After his triumphant acting in Ali and Collateral, both directed by Michael Mann, Jamie Foxx leaps right inside the skin of Ray Charles, giving a splendid performance that while based on accurate impersonation, goes well beyond that. Foxx not only bears striking physical resemblance to Charles, he also uses his voice in a precise and perfect synchronization with his subject’s. The news of Foxx moving into the front rank of leading men is not just a cause for celebration it’s a reason for hope for many other talented actors waiting for their big break.

At two and a half hours, Ray may be too long for some viewers, but, as a musical portrait, it does full justice to Charles. Hackford’s film is a multi-leveled portrait of a man who triumphed over his blindness by pushing everything to the limit, disregarding any obstacle that stood on his way to living a full, pleasurable existence, not just as a musician but also as a man with an irrepressible libido and gusto for life.

Inevitable comparisons will be made to other biopictures about artists, be they composers, singers, or scientists. The films that come to mind are Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross as troubled singer Billie Holliday, A Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn, and most recently, A Beautiful Mind, featuring Russell Crowe as the paranoid bisexual mathematician. These films form a subcategory within the biopicture genre that could be called The Genius with a Problem.

Born in 1930 in Albany, Georgia, into Depression-era poverty, Ray Charles Robinson (he later dropped his last name) discovered and fell in love with music at a very early age. The inspiration came from the “call-and-response” hymns of his Baptist church and the “rough-and-tumble” Blues of local musicians. Charles began studying piano before the age of five, and achieved distinction a few years later.

A series of tragedies altered the course of Charles’ life and shaped his complex persona. Charles witnessed the drowning death of his brother George in an accident, for which he always blamed himself. Shortly thereafter, a combination of glaucoma and the trauma of watching his brother die caused a progressive loss of his vision. By the age of 7, he had gone completely blind.

It was the strength and insistence of Charles’ tough and devoted mother that forced him to learn how to navigate the world. Charles was helped by an extraordinarily acute sense of hearing and eternal fascination with sound (he claimed he could hear silence). Remarkably, Charles never had to use a cane, or rely on a dog. Dependency, of any sort, simply didn’t exist in his vocabulary.

In March 1948, climbing on a Greyhound bus, Charles crossed the country alone, making his way into the Seattle circuit as a piano player and smooth-voiced crooner in the tradition of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. In due course, Charles surpassed both of these singers in versatility, range, and repertoire. Going for something really innovative at the time, Charles mixed together the sacred passion of Gospel with the more earthly desires of the “devil’s own music,” the Blues. While galvanizing, initially, the effort was so controversial that radio stations banned several of his hits.

As in any biopicture of a messy, troubled life, some turning points are emphasized. Charles’ big breakthrough occurred in the early 1950s, when he signed with Atlantic Records, recruited by the upstart music executives, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, indie entrepreneurs scouting for new grounds. It was also during this era of experimentation and early success that Charles discovered the pleasures of heroin and became addicted to it. He was busted for heroin possession in 1965, while landing at Boston’s Logan Airport from a tour in Montreal.

In 1959, Charles switched record labels and moved on to ABC-Paramount, lured by an offer to become his own master. The new deal gave him the kind of financial control that no other artist had enjoyed before. To his execs’ shock, Charles shifted his style radically, embarking on an exploration of Country & Western music. He succeeded in expanding his audience with such classic hits as Georgia on My Mind, I Can’t Stop Loving You, Born to Lose, and Busted–seminal songs that are well integrated into the story’s broader socio-political and musical contexts.

Since Ray’s real life was full of drama and tragedy, there is no reason for the writers to embellish or fabricate any events, as many biopicture have done in the past. Ray may be faithful to the many tragedies in Charles’ life, but it’s the way they are presented, aiming to give the film a clear structure and coherent shape, that drags the story down to a formula of the rise and fall and rise of a genius musician.

Biopictures often stand or fall on their faithfulness to their subjects’ lives. Does Ray cover too much territory Would it have been better to focus on one or two decades in Charles’ life These are some of the dilemmas that Hackford faced as director and co-writer. Spanning over three decades of Charles’ life, James L. White’s screenplay is necessarily sprawling and inevitably episodic.

The success of biopictures is also based on the selection–and omission–of material. In the name of coherence and unity, Ray centers on Charles’ marriage and only a few of his infidelities. The film, as Charles himself, is unapologetic about the musician’s womanizing, drug habits, and double-life. We get the pride, genius, and passion for music, but also Charles’ egotism and need to place his life and his music before anything and anyone else’s. However, despite efforts to be comprehensive, the movie still leaves out major aspects of Charles’ life. For example, only a few of the many children Charles had fathered are mentioned.

Other problems stem from the sanctified portrait of Charles’ mother (shown in too many flashbacks), and the sanitized look of his poverty-stricken childhood that feels as unauthentic as Spielberg’s sanitized version of The Color Purple. The film’s weakest aspect is Charles’ political conversion, or what propelled him into becoming a Civil Rights activist; the riots remain in the background.

The ultimate test of a satisfying biopicture is twofold. First, to what extent the film captures the essence of the artist and his work. And second, to what extent the film makes the viewers eager to further explore the artist’s life. By these criteria, Ray is a successful and enjoyable film that, despite lapses, illuminates Charles and his legendary music.

It may sound too mythical and self-promoting, but Charles himself, attempting to explain the forces motivating his life, wrote in Brother Ray, his memoirs: “I was born with the music in me. That’s the only explanation I know of.” In Ray, Charles comes across as an unparalleled singer of Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Country and Western, drawing from and contributing to each of these musical streams, “making a river,” as one writer put it, “which he alone can navigate.” Ray also suggests Charles’ unmatched impact with musical inventiveness that has influenced generations of Rock, Soul, Jazz, Gospel and Country artists.

I have no doubts that Ray Charles, who died on June 10, 2004, at the age of 73, would have loved to see Ray and the enthusiastic reaction the film generates among contemporary audiences.