Movie Review: Ray
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
When you play a genius on screen, you better have the right stuff yourself, or the camera will shrivel you.
That doesn't happen in "Ray." In this triumphant musical movie-bio, Jamie Foxx gives a landmark performance as soul, jazz and blues great Ray Charles, playing the late legend with such brilliant physical recall and incendiary emotion that his performance almost erases the barriers of life and time.
Foxx, taller and huskier than Charles, somehow turns himself into a carbon copy, helped by the Genius himself, whom we hear on the soundtrack singing dozens of his hits from the 1950s and '60s.
Since Charles was one of the most universally loved and most physically distinctive 20th century pop stars - blind, seraphically smiling Brother Ray, in shades, moving with that seemingly inimitable jerky, rolling body language - one would think any actor would be daunted at trying to bring him back to life. But Foxx succeeds almost totally: talking, moving and playing (but not singing) with such inspired mimicry that you tend to accept him completely.
The resulting movie, a 15-year dream project for director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "When We Were Kings"), is a terrific picture, worthy of its subject. Charles could make your heart hammer with "I Got a Woman," your spirits sing with "Georgia on My Mind," your body sway with "What'd I Say." You laugh and wince with "Hit the Road Jack," or you cry with "Ol' Man River" or "Come Rain or Come Shine."
But he also was, as this movie unflinchingly shows us, fallible and flawed, a heroin addict and serial philanderer. Even so, he was an inspiring man, his life a classic illustration of the power of artistic talent to transcend racial, physical and social barriers.
"Ray," which Charles "saw" and approved before his recent death, shows the singer from his 1930s childhood (as Ray Charles Robinson) to the height of fame in the mid-'60s. The focus is on the time from 1948, when he left Georgia, to 1965, when, at the top of the charts and his profession, he was busted for heroin possession and decided to kick his dangerous addiction for good.
That he did - but Hackford doesn't show us the rest of Charles' career as beloved idol. With an inspired mix of raunchiness and sophistication, music and drama, he gives us Charles in the inferno of early poverty and the purgatory of early show-business success, shows how the man conquered the bonds of blindness, prejudice and hard drugs - and then leaves us with his music.
We see young Ray in abject poverty in rural Georgia, going blind at 5, learning piano, then hitting the road at 17 and joining the Lowell Fulson band (and getting his habit), and then, with stunning rapidity, scaling the heights of rhythm-and-blues stardom and conquering the mainstream crossover market.
The childhood scenes, mostly in flashback, give us stark drama and a burningly impressive Sharon Warren as Charles' young laundrywoman mother, Aretha. The early Seattle scenes pungently show Charles plunging into sex, finding his own musical style after copying Nat "King" Cole, and meeting young Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate). In New York, where he begins to record for Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff), that style - a mix of gospel and blues with a trace of hillbilly - is refined, and a star is made.
But it is Charles' secret life of sex and drugs - and the contrast with his soulful onstage personality - that deepens the drama. This is no whitewash. The movie never lets up, and it's clear that Charles (who also told the story in his autobiography, "Brother Ray") didn't want it to. Hackford exposes his idol. Yet through it all, we also see him as a great artist with a sweet, strong, tender soul. We understand what makes the audiences, and his many women - from his first wife, gospel-singing Della Bea (Kerry Washington), to lustier blues singer Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) to fierce Raelette Margie Hendricks (Regina King) - love him too.
The large cast is so uniformly superfine, down to the smallest roles, that the entire company stands with the year's best movie ensembles. And so powerful and convincing is Foxx's performance as Charles that when we hear the 25 songs in Charles' real voice, there's no sense of discontinuity. (It probably helps that it's Foxx playing the piano in those scenes.)
Of course, Foxx doesn't sing like Charles, or (except briefly ) for him. No one could and no one does. It's Charles' voice we hear, soaring, growling, weeping and laughing, from "Mess Around" to "I Can't Stop Loving You." Hearing these songs warms the soul again, and one can only thank Hackford, Foxx and everyone else - especially Charles himself - for presenting them so faithfully, and the man so clearly. "Ray" is a fit tribute to an entertainer whom, no matter what hate or hardship threw in his way or how many mistakes he made, we can't stop loving.
Directed by Taylor Hackford; written by James L. White, from a story by Hackford and White; photographed by Pawel Edelman; edited by Paul Hirsch; production designed by Stephen Altman; music by Craig Armstrong; music supervisor Curt Sobel; original and new recordings by Ray Charles; produced by Hackford, Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin and Stuart Benjamin. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 29. Running time: 2:33. MPAA rating: PG-13 (depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements).
Ray Charles - Jamie Foxx
Della Bea Robinson - Kerry Washington
Margie Hendricks - Regina King
Jeff Brown - Clifton Powell
Mary Ann Fisher - Aunjanue Ellis
Joe Adams - Harry Lennix
Gossie McKee - Terrence Dashon Howard
Quincy Jones - Larenz Tate
Fathead Newman - Bokeem Woodbine
Aretha Robinson - Sharon Warren