There’s an almost comfortably retro feeling about “Ray.” Taylor Hackford’s picture about Ray Charles is reminiscent of the opulent, episodic biographies of artists and actors that Hollywood once produced in profusion, but now makes only occasionally. Slick, oversized (at 153 minutes), ostensibly warts-and-all but actually quite reverential, the movie is nonetheless quite enjoyable, thanks not only to the great music that fills the soundtrack but to the eye-catching performance of Jamie Foxx in the title role. Foxx has always been a great mimic, and he puts that talent to good use in recreating Charles’ look and voice. But he goes beyond mere imitation, achieving considerable nuance and subtlety, especially in the more intimate scenes.
Still, even Foxx’s powerful turn can’t disguise the fact that “Ray” is basically a very conventional biopic, which, after a prologue depicting the singer-pianist’s impoverished childhood, fascination with music and oncoming blindness, abruptly jumps ahead to 1948, when he struck out alone to join traveling jazz bands on the west coast. It then follows his career through the mid-sixties, touching on all the salient points: his shrewdness in dealing with record producers, first at Atlantic, which nurtured his talent, and then at ABC Paramount, to which he decamped for financial reasons; his relationship with the manager (Clifton Brown) who’d been with him from the earliest days, but whom he eventually replaces with a more businesslike if rather manipulative one (Harry Lennix); his marriage to high-minded Della Bea (Kerry Washington); his long dalliances with other women, notably singers Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King); his addiction to heroin, which culminates in a bout in a rehabilitation facility; and his run-ins with racist law enforcement officials during a time when the popularity of an African-American with white audiences could be reason for his being targeted. The script does a good job not only of demonstrating Charles’ genius in general terms, but also of charting his development as an artist who moves from style to style in innovative and unusual ways. The later portion of Charles’ life is omitted, except for a 1979 sequence in which his home state of Georgia, which had earlier banned him from performing there, staged an elaborate public apology that serves as a dramatic vindication. (Julian Bond himself appears in it.)
Clearly the picture covers a lot of ground, and it manages to do so in a colorful, reasonably energetic way. Much of what happens is constructed in a fairly ordinary fashion–one need go no further than the account of Ray’s surprise success at the piano in the first bar he visits in Seattle to see how Hackford prizes formula over innovation, and virtually all the other episodes in the picture follow a similar, slightly stale, pattern. But as familiar as the approach might be, the subject is sufficiently intriguing to keep the viewer interested if not exactly entranced. That wouldn’t be the case, however, were it not for Foxx’s galvanizing turn. It’s not a deep or profound performance–the script focuses on the surface of the man rather than penetrating the mysteries of his character–but Foxx gets the physical movements and inflections of the character remarkably right, and captures Charles’ obsession with his music very persuasively. (He’s far more successful along these lines than Will Smith was in “Ali,” for example.) To be honest, the picture comes close to being a one-man show–not unlike its subject’s own stage performances–and the other actors almost disappear in Foxx’s shadow. But Sharon Warren cuts a strong figure as young Ray’s hard-scrabbling, demanding mother in the early scenes, and Washington, Ellis and King are certainly effective, though at times a bit overstated, as the various women in his life. On the male side the most positive impressions are left not by Powell or Lennix, who are adequate but not much more, but by Larenz Tate, who draws an energetic if generalized portrait of the young Quincy Jones, by C.J. Sanders as the young Ray, and by Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff, who make the most of their scenes as Ray’s generous, supportive producers at Atlantic Records. The latter duo are so good that one regrets actually Charles’ decision to leave their company when a more lucrative offer comes along.
“Ray” has the typically glossy, well-groomed appearance of a Hackford film, with the technical contributions outstanding across the board. Special attention is due the fine production design by Stephen Altman, art direction by John E. Bucklin and Scott Plauche, and costume design by Sharen Davis; the carefully crafted cinematography by Pawel Edelman; and the Steve Cantamessa’s sound mix, which is naturally of particular importance in a film of this sort. The picture certainly soothes both eye and ear. And if the more often than not pedestrian treatment doesn’t always engage the soul as deeply as one might wish, Foxx’s extraordinary impersonation offers considerable compensation.