Being Ray Charles

A convincing turn as the soul and blues great could make Jamie Foxx a legend in his own time.

October 27, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

His eyes shut tight, his head crooked to one side, Jamie Foxx slows down his voice, sweetens it up a tad, and slides effortlessly into a dead-on imitation of Ray Charles, complete with the blues-rock great's trademark stutter, exaggerated head roll and silkily seductive cadences.

"Eh, eh, you know, I did this thing," he says, haltingly, with a sly grin, and suddenly there's another person in the room, a blind man who revolutionized American music, who was once called by no less an authority than Frank Sinatra: "the only genius in our business."

The effect is less startling than overwhelming; it takes only a second for Foxx to switch on the voice and mannerisms that have made his performance in Ray, director Taylor Hackford's celebration of Charles' life and talent, an early Oscar favorite. That may be Jamie Foxx sitting on the other side of the table, but it's Brother Ray who's taking over the room.

And nobody gets a bigger kick out of Foxx's mastery of the master than Foxx himself.

"It was a matter of being him, it wasn't a question of how to be like him," says Foxx, smiling broadly while opening his eyes and switching back to his own voice. "When we went on set and they said `Action,' it was being him."

Opening in theaters Friday, Ray follows Charles' career from its beginning - when, as a teenager, he confidently took a bus from his Florida home to Seattle's bustling jazz scene - to the heights of his career. Except for some flashbacks, recalling the childhood accident that traumatized Charles (his brother drowned in a backyard wash basin) and the degenerative eye disease that robbed him of his sight, Foxx is onscreen for nearly every scene. That gives audiences plenty of chances to dismiss him as a poor Charles impersonator, or to rail against his having the effrontery to imitate one of this country's best-loved, distinctive singers.

But it's hard to imagine anyone doing either, so complete is Foxx's mastery of the role, so obvious is his respect for the man. Reminded that Billy Joel once quipped that being in a recording session when Charles entered the room was like having the Statue of Liberty walk in, Foxx laughs and shakes his head emphatically.

"Ray Charles, I mean, c'mon," says Foxx, searching for the right words to describe the challenges an actor faces when portraying such a familiar legend. "You really have to think ... I know we're all supposed to be created equal, but if we're equal, how come it doesn't feel that way when I walk in a room? I mean, he walks in a room, and automatically, everyone just goes wild."

Not that Foxx hasn't enjoyed his share of adoring audiences. A stand-up comic whose big break came when he won the annual Bay Area Black Comedy Competition in 1991, Foxx parlayed that entry-level toehold into a decade of honing his comedic chops, including a three-season stint on Fox TV's In Living Color and a five-season run on the WB's The Jamie Foxx Show. Along the way, he's earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's hardest partyers and most sure-fire crowd-pleasers.

None of which, of course, suggests he'd have the ability to handle something like Ray, a major-league star turn which generates little in the way of laughs. But throughout his career, Foxx has been working on his acting as well, earning praise for supporting roles such as a self-aggrandizing NFL quarterback in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999); and as boxing trainer Bundini Brown in Michael Mann's Ali (2001). Seeing those sides of Foxx was enough for Hackford, who insists the actor was the perfect choice to play Charles. The clincher, he says, was finding out that Foxx, who attended San Diego's U.S. International University, a performing arts school, could play the piano.

"I was going to make a film about Ray Charles, so I looked around for the person who could look like him, have the right age characteristics, have some acting talent," says Hackford, who first approached Charles, who died in June, about doing a movie based on his life 15 years ago. "I knew all those things. I didn't know he could play; when I found out he could, I said, `My God, this is perfect, this is destiny.'"

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