Two things save Taylor Hackford’s biopic about Ray Charles from banality–the lead performance by Jamie Foxx and the music.
The music speaks for itself. Anyone who has been alive during the last fifty years has heard Ray Charles recordings and found it impossible to stop the toe from tapping. Whether he wrote the song (like his first big hit, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand") or covered another songwriter’s material (Hoary Carmichael’s "Georgia on My Mind"), Charles’ musical genius, creativity, and warm humanity infused his performances with timeless universal appeal.
Ray capitalizes on Charles’ music, inserting performances of many of the songs (lip-synched by Foxx) as they fit in to the essentially chronological tracing of his life story. When the music is playing, the film comes alive. When it isn’t, the film seems conventional, unimaginative and stretched out well beyond its ability to sustain narrative momentum.
There’s plenty of biographical material that is interesting here and a good deal that, even though true to the history books, seems like a retread. The death of Charles’ younger brother, who drowned in a wash tub while still a toddler, is depicted as traumatic, but the repeated images of Charles’ nightmares about the incident, recurring throughout the film, are not very convincing and quickly seem redundant.
Charles’ loss of his sight due to an eye disease while still a young boy iseffectively presented, as is the strong and positive influence of his mother (Sharon Warren), who used loving discipline to be sure that her son learned to function independently. And, throughout the film, there are scattered scenes which show how Charles used his heightened sense of hearing and a trained memory to overcome many of the difficulties that his blindness caused.
With his acute power of listening and his prodigious memory, Charles was able to internalize a wide range of music and styles, giving him a varied tool chest on which to draw. His real creative genius was his ability to combine genres, creating new sounds out of those that came before. The point is made in the film, particularly with "I’ve Got a Woman," in which Charles infused the basic rhythm and blues sound with the throbbing energy of gospel. The result was fresh and hot and propelled Charles into ever wider crossover markets. (He also took static from some Blacks who felt Charles had turned God’s music over to the devil.) Still later in his career, he did the unexpected and dipped into Country Western music, topping the charts with "I Can’t Stop Loving You."
Other aspects of Charles’ life don’t play well in Ray. His marriage, his extra-marital romances on the road, his heroin addiction, his business dealings are all faithfully retold in the film, but without much dramatic impact. His somewhat belated civil rights activism is shown, but his conversion to that point of view is completely glossed over. In its apparent intent to cover Charles’ life comprehensively, Ray drowns the drama in excessive detail and often picks the wrong details to include.
Jamie Foxx, brilliant in the recent Collateral, is chameleonic in Ray, disappearing into the character both physically and emotionally, delivering a performance that feels genuine and remarkably true to the man. Even when the story bogs down, Foxx’s portrayal is fascinating to see.