Every fall season sees the release of half a dozen biopics, “prestige” pictures meant to lift audiences’ spirits with the story of real-life greats. The filmmakers usually figure they might get Oscars for it, and so do the actors who take on famous personas. I doubt “Ray” helmer Taylor Hackford’s serviceable at best direction will earn him much awards, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see star Jamie Foxx on stage at the next Academy Awards.
Ray Charles Robinson, born in Georgia in 1930, overcame blindness, segregation and drug addiction to become one of the most beloved entertainers of the 20th century. He died of liver failure last June.
The film starts in 1948, as Ray gets on a bus to Seattle where a job awaits him, and spans his career until the late 1960s, when he’s become a musical icon but is still struggling to kick his heroin habit. That’s a good decision because, even at 2h25, the film couldn’t possibly have covered the 74 years of Ray’s life. The key moments in his early years (his brother’s death, losing his sight, his mother’s tough love, etc.) are seen in short flashbacks sprinkled through the film, and his last 40 years are nicely summarized in a closing montage of images of the real Ray Charles.
Much has already been written about Jamie Foxx’ extraordinary embodiment of the late great musician, but it truly is an amazing performance. Seriously, it took me 15 minutes before I remembered that I was watching Foxx, right from the start it felt like I was watching Ray Charles himself. Foxx looks like him, moves like him and, most crucially, sounds like him; I couldn’t tell when he is singing from when he’s Ashlee-synching to Charles’ recordings. Speaking of which, the performances are simply electrifying: I Got a Woman, What’d I Say, Hit the Road Jack, Unchain My Heart…
“Ray” is conventional and melodramatic, but it works. I was always feeling for Ray, through the good times and the bad times. The screenplay is episodic and the highs and the lows don’t quite make a homogenous whole, but that’s life, right? At least the film doesn’t sidestep Charles’ flaws, notably his womanizing and his heroin addiction, even if it’s a relatively clean picture. This isn’t Requiem for a Dream, mind you, but the climactic rehab sequence convincingly conveys the pain of withdrawal. I also liked the way that, through hallucinations, Ray’s mom and brother are reintroduced for the big emotional payoff. I cried through the last ten minutes of the film – and most of the credits. Ray Charles will be missed, but there will always be his music, and now this film.
“Don’t ever feel sorry for me just ‘cause I’m blind.”
“How can I pity someone I admire?”