Solo Act

Jamie Foxx soars as 'Ray' despite the movie's failure to provide back up. And, of course, the music will leave you tapping your toes.

MovieReview

October 29, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Jamie Foxx is so mesmerizing as Ray Charles, so totally at ease inside the skin of perhaps America's greatest musical genius, at least of the last half of the 20th century, it's a shame his performance isn't surrounded by a better film.

For outside of Foxx's performance, Ray is strictly by-the-numbers stuff, a highlight reel of Ray Charles' life that hits the highs and the lows, but offers little insight into the man, his talent or his place in music history.

Director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman), who spent 15 years trying to bring Charles' story to theater screens, clearly has a love of his subject, but Ray offers precious little outside that veneration - and even that it does only stumblingly, as James L. White's script sometimes goes out of its way to highlight Charles' flaws.

The film offers a theory on what made Charles such a driven man, a force of nature who refused to be cowed by anything or anyone, but never spins that off into anything else. What made Charles so creative? Where did he find his muse? Such questions, far more intriguing than where Charles found his unquenchable drive, are barely touched on, as is the little matter of what separated him from the hundreds of other soul, gospel and jazz singers plying their trades in the 1940s and 1950s. The claim that Charles was a genius (and he certainly was) not only goes unchallenged, it goes unexamined.

Certainly, few entertainers deserve to have their lives dramatized onscreen more than Ray Charles. Blind by age 7, Charles conquered his own darkness by fusing the gospel music he started playing as a kid with the jazz he loved, then tossed in healthy doses of good old-fashioned raunch (think of the moaning call-and-response that sends "What'd I Say?" soaring) to make music that no sensate human being could resist.

Ray introduces us to a teenage Ray Robinson (he'd later change his name to Charles to avoid being confused with the boxer) in March 1948, as he's about to embark on a cross-country bus trip from Florida to Seattle, in hopes of making a name for himself on the city's burgeoning jazz scene. Our intro to Charles, as he somehow persuades a bigoted bus driver to let a blind black man ride the bus alone, sets up the man we'll be seeing throughout: stubborn, resourceful, sure of what he wants and unflappable in the face of opposition.

Negatives

Unfortunately, that's as far as the film goes in assessing Charles' gifts; if anything, Ray dwells a tad too much on the negative side, setting Charles' life up as not a challenge to be creative, to leave his mark on American music and, not coincidentally, on American race relations. Instead, we see a man struggling to overcome his limitations, first his blindness, then his womanizing, then his heroin addiction, and finally - although this one he never comes to grips with - his casual willingness to discard friends who have outlasted their usefulness.

Such attention to the human side of Ray Charles leaves precious little time to peel away what made him so superhuman, to pick apart the man's talent and at least get a feel for its origins, as well as its enormity. Ray presents the creative process as a series of effortless fits and starts, moments of inspiration that occur with unreasonable regularity. Every one of Charles' hits, in the world according to Ray, is the result of a casual conversation, or an offhand remark, or an impromptu jam session. That's an easy way out for a screenwriter, but hardly the stuff of good - or honest - drama.

And yet, it's tempting to forgive Ray for all its shortcomings, so wondrous is Foxx's performance. As a stand-up comic-turned-actor, Foxx is rapidly reaching the point where he's going to stop surprising people - in his career, he's held his own in supporting roles against Al Pacino (Any Given Sunday), Will Smith (Ali) and Tom Cruise (Collateral); in Ray, he proves he can carry an entire movie without help from anyone.

Despite the close-cropped hair and the ever-present shades, Foxx doesn't look all that much like Charles; his face has a boyishness and angularity the real Ray didn't. No matter; the voice and mannerisms are perfect, and Foxx acts the part, using his looks and his voice as mere props. Anyone who thinks impersonation is enough when playing a real person needs to see Rich Little as Johnny Carson in HBO's The Late Shift. Little's Carson is as dead-on as ever, but there's no soul to the performance, and it's painful to watch.

While Foxx may dominate, good supporting turns are offered by Kerry Washington as Charles' long-suffering, yet indomitable, second wife, Della Bea, and Regina King as his mistress, singer Margie Hendricks. Less successful, in part because the characters they're asked to play are strictly one-dimensional, are Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, and Richard Schiff (TV's The West Wing) as producer Jerry Wexler.

Charles' songs

Perhaps the best news about Ray is that it uses Charles' actual music; Foxx lip-syncs and pounds away at his piano as the real Ray Charles grinds out such classics as "I've Got a Woman," "Georgia on My Mind," "Unchain My Heart" and "Hit the Road Jack." Hearing those sonic treasures blast out from a Dolby sound system, as sharp and crystal clear as if the man and his piano were in the room with you, alone is worth the price of admission.

Then again, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Ray Charles' songs are among the best things about a film based on his life. While he was alive, Ray Charles played runner-up to no man.

Ray

Starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington

Directed by Taylor Hackford

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13 (depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements)

Time 145 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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