An extraordinary actor plays an extraordinary person in “Ray,” the life of a brilliant musician and performer who triumphed over poverty, blindness, and racism through talent, passion, and courage.
It is an almost insurmountable challenge for an actor to play someone the audience knows so well, especially someone like Ray Charles. It would have been easy to make it a caricature instead of a performance, to imitate him instead of being him. But Jamie Foxx (Collateral, On Any Sunday, Ali) creates such a real and vivid person that we almost forget that he is re-enacting someone else’s life. He captures Charles’ mannerisms but not as imitation, more like channeling. The way he moves and talks and holds his head come from deep within the characterization. Foxx’s background as a musician (he has a degree in classical piano) and the prosthetics he used on his eyes that left him functionally sightless during filming lend a great deal of authenticity as well. He shows us Charles’ intensity and his charm. And he achieves the near-impossible by making us feel close to a man who did not let people close, a man who sang, “You Don’t Know Me.”
The movie’s two greatest strengths are Foxx’s incendiary and fully-inhabited performance and Charles’ peerless music. There are also outstanding supporting performances, including Kerry Washington as Charles’ wife Della Bea, Regina King as back-up singer (and mistress) Margie, and Curtis Armstrong as Atlantic records executive Ahmet Ertegun.
But it never surmounts the biopic hurdles, the ones that separate real stories from made-for-tv-style formulas.
First, it focuses too much on Charles’ personal life. What is most interesting is his music, and too often this movie tells us instead of showing us how revolutionary Charles was as composer, performer, and producer. There’s too much with people saying “You can’t do that!” and “No one’s ever done that before!” and “Look! We’re number one on the charts!” and not enough of showing us the process, the inspiration, collaboration, or the passion that made the music.
Furthermore, the movie makes the mistake of trying to cover too much, compressing decades into hours. There are peripheral characters we care about and never see again and peripheral characters we never know enough about to care when we do find out what happens.
Its biggest failing is over-simplifying the influences and developments in Charles’ life and music, with a return to the old style of biographical movie-making. It has too-frequent revelatory flashbacks that tie his reactions and each of his songs to particular revelations and turning points. It begins to feel like a “greatest hits” compilation, skipping from high point to low point (and, like Charles, from woman to woman) in a clutter of incidents instead of a story, matching songs to events as though it was a Disney musical. It is a tribute to Foxx’s commitment and focus at its center that the movie has any sense of direction at all.
But there are many moments of great power as Charles says he must be paid in singles so he cannot be cheated and insists on owning his own music instead of letting the studio control it. He breaks through musical barriers that separate R&B from country and societal barriers that allow a black man to perform in segregated venues. And every time he plays and sings, it is pure magic.
Parents should know that the movie has very strong material for a PG-13; it’s more like a PG-16. There are frequent sexual references and situations (non-explicit), as Charles has relationships with many, many women, even after he is married. One of the women becomes pregnant. Characters drink, smoke (constantly) and take drugs, including marijuana and heroin. A character OD’s (off-camera), and there is a harrowing scene of detoxing after Charles decides to end his 20-year heroin habit. Characters use very strong language. A child is killed and another loses his sight. A strength of the movie is its frank coverage of the pre-Civil Rights era, where the “Chitlin’ Circuit” was the (almost) all-black venues where black performers were booked. In one understated scene, it makes clear that no restaurants would allow black customers, so they had to make arrangements at the homes of black people along the way. In another scene, Charles refuses to perform in a facility that does not allow black customers and is sued by the promoter and banned from the state of Georgia as a result.
Families who see this movie should talk about what made Ray Charles strong and what made him weak. Should he have left Atlantic? How should he have treated Jeff after Joe told him what he did? Which of Aretha Robinson’s advice to her son was the most important to him?
Families who enjoy this movie should sit down together to listen to the astonishing range and power of the music of Ray Charles. They will also enjoy some of the best of the other biopics featuring musicians, including Coal Miner’s Daughter, with an Oscar-winning performance by Sissy Spacek as country star Lorretta Lynn, The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey as the pioneering rock musician, and Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross as Billy Holliday.