The story of Ray Charles (played by Jamie Foxx), music legend. Told in his adult life with flashbacks to his youth we see his humble origins in Florida, his turbulent childhood, which included losing his brother and then his sight, his rise as pianist in a touring band, him writing his own songs and running his own band, and then stardom. Also includes his addiction to drugs and its affect on his working life and family life.
User Reviews: The lights go down, the screen goes black, and the strains of ‘What’d I Say’ light up as fingers furiously bounce across a piano’s keyboard and my toes start tapping. Smoke billows, and we see a pair of black sunglasses reflect a master perfecting his trade. Then, suddenly, at the height of the song’s excitement, we’re yanked out of the sizzling darkness and thrown into a dusty, bright North Florida locale. The tease of Ray’s thrilling opening being cut short by a quiet, story-building scene is a theme that runs constant throughout director Taylor Hackford’s realized lifelong dream. Every time the film gains momentum and begins to reel us in, Hackford seems nervous and abruptly shows us something else, usually something not nearly as intriguing.
Ray is a film about the dizzying highs and terrifying lows of the life of Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), starting at his early days as a traveling musician to his victory over drug addiction, all the while using fantasies and flashbacks to reveal heartbreaking mysteries about his childhood. Right off the bat, the cleverness and deceiving simplicity of Charles, born Ray Charles Robinson, is shown as he weasels his way into a ride with a gruff bus driver by using his handicap and a little bit of embellishment. This cleverness is a Ray staple, and throughout the film, Foxx portrays Ray as sort of a genius man-child, always able to charm and sweet talk his way into and out of different types of trouble. This trouble usually comes in the form of women, wedged between music and drugs as one of the three escapes in his life. The central women in Ray’s story range from the dangerously jealous Mary Anne (Aunjanue Ellis), the brittle and needy Margie (Regina King, who mimics the boisterous harmonies in ‘Night & Day’ perfectly), and the strong and secure Della Bea, excellently played by Kerry Washington as the necessary cornerstone to Ray’s ever-fragile foundation of success. The journey taken by each woman through the life of the man she loves is painful and well presented, taking a seat in the ‘Pro’ column of the film.
In fact, the performances throughout the entire film are exquisite, from young Ray, whose confusion and detached innocence are portrayed wonderfully by C.J. Sanders, to Ray’s mother Aretha (Sharon Warren), who so obviously planted the seeds of necessity for a strong woman early in Ray’s life. And, of course, there is the performance of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, the acting gig of a lifetime. After seeing him in such material as Booty Call and his sit-com, I really, really did not want to like Jamie Foxx, who just seemed like the usual unoriginal comedian with the funny faces and the clichéd jokes. But after this film, as well as Michael Mann’s love letter to Los Angeles, Collateral, my foot is in my mouth. I can honestly say Foxx has grown into one fine actor. In fact, his portrayal of Ray is the best acting job of the year, along with Jim Caviezel’s torturous role as Jesus in The Passion Of The Christ and Tom Hanks’ wonderfully complex take on the misplaced immigrant in The Terminal. Throughout the film, Jamie Foxx recreates every little nuance and characteristic of the man, and once you see him jamming out a tune, you’ll do a double take. The term ‘spitting image’ does not do the sight justice.
So the acting is wonderful, and is only enhanced by the excellent soundtrack, of course supplied entirely by the music of the legend that is Ray Charles. Almost every classic is included, although I didn’t notice any of ‘Crying Time’, one of my personal favorites. I dare you not to smile once you see that orchestra start up ‘Georgia On My Mind’, and I dare you not to tap your fingers along to ‘Unchain My Heart’. If I was to grade the film purely on the acting and the music, Ray would be a surefire winner, but sadly, that isn’t the case.
The thing that brings the film down to a less grandiose level is the aforementioned direction of Taylor Hackford, who never seems entirely confident in himself or his material. As with many biographical films, the director never seems to settle on a single theme. The issues addressed in the film include Ray’s drug addiction, his womanizing, the pain of his familial loss, his relationship with record labels, and his relationship with his management team and band. Although all these issues are presented, many of them are dropped or not entirely explored by the time an awkward and overly rushed ending arrives. The ending is representative of the entire picture, as it is incongruent and doesn’t quite piece together as well as it should. (I won’t even get started on the dream sequence that gives Ray the ability of sight, as well as takes away his trademark walk, apparently.) The film suffers from inconsistent editing and confused visuals: while some establishing shots are grainy stock footage of 1950’s America, some are just regularly shot scenes that match the look of the rest of the film. The irregularity that runs rampant in the film is unsettling and makes things jumbled and unsatisfactory to look at. Hackford and his cinematographer Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) have momentary flourishes of brilliance, however. Take for example the scene where Ray and Quincy Jones discuss the racial climate of the south in the 60’s: The setting is an outdoor barbecue, and Ray is surrounded by smoke and particles of dust dancing in the sunlight. It’s a visually enthralling scene, but it’s merely a high point in a film that doesn’t offer much balance for the eye.
All in all, Ray is a fine piece of film-making, but not because of anything presented from behind the camera. An average screenplay by Hackford and first timer James L. White is turned into something extraordinary by the cast, especially by Jamie Foxx, who is sure to be recognized once awards season is in full effect. I recommend Ray to everyone, because it does hit some interesting keys when it comes to the struggles of handicaps and how they affect relationships with loved ones, business partners, and God himself. Not only that, but it showcases some of the best music you’ll hear in your entire life just don’t expect to see anything like you’ll hear.
MY RATING: A-