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RAY (PG-13) (2004)

Universal Pictures

Official Site

Director: Taylor Hackford

Producers: Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin, Stuart Benjamin, Taylor Hackford

Written by: James L. White

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanae Ellis


Taylor Hackford’s new film about the life of the legendary singer/musician Ray Charles chronicles Ray’s life from his birth in 1930 to 1979 when the state of Georgia declared Ray a cultural hero for his refusal to submit to Jim Crow laws and made “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song. It is a film told with dedicated authority and tenderness, one the late Ray Charles would have been proud of.

When he was just 7 years old, Ray Charles Robinson lost his sight. But he never let that loss affect his passion for life and music. Born in the rural backwater of the Florida panhandle, Ray was raised by a fiercely spirited single mother who taught him to fend for himself. There is an amazing scene where the young Ray begs his mother to help him after he’s gone blind, but she refuses and lets him feel his way around the house by using his ears and other senses. His independence was learned, and because of his mother’s intelligent guidance, Ray never used a cane or a dog to help him get around. He didn’t need it. Nor did he need anyone’s help in negotiating his own contracts. In historic fashion, Ray even demanded (and got) the masters of his original recordings from his record label.

For years in his early career, Ray imitated the angelic voice of Nat “King” Cole and learned everything there was to know about gospel and, believe it or not, country music. So after he was signed to his first big record deal with Atlantic Records, he created a sort of fusion of rhythm and blues, country, and gospel. He was a genre unto himself, and his music helped redefine the music of the South. Songs like “I Got a Woman” and “Hit the Road, Jack” were completely original, and when we hear them played in the film, they remind us why his gifts are so unparalleled. There are a few moments when the credibility of his inspirations is strained, such as when he basically writes the song “What’d I Say” during the last 20 minutes of a show. It’s a little hard to believe that the words and lyrics developed so perfectly in such a brief amount of time. But, then again, Ray himself served as an adviser to the film and worked for many years with Taylor Hackford to perfect the script. So, who knows?

Ray was addicted to heroin for many of his most productive years. Amazingly, it only seemed to accentuate his genius. Throughout his life, Ray was haunted by the death of his younger brother, who drowned in a bathtub before Ray’s eyes. Paralyzed by a lack of understanding, the young Ray basically watched his brother die. The film suggests that the memory of this tragedy contributed to Ray’s addiction, a habit that threatened to ruin his career. Women were another source of drama in his life, but he never gave up on them. Despite his roving ways, and his most damaging affair with Margie Hendricks (played with fantastic gusto by Regina King), Ray’s beloved wife Della Bea (played by the lovely Kerry Washington) never left his side. The film doesn’t portray Ray as a cruel cheater, more like a man who needed to be loved on the road, but who would never forsake his responsibilities at home. Indeed, he was honest in his own way about his affairs, and his wife stayed by his side because she was able to accept his weaknesses.

Director Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman, Dolores Claiborne), who also directed Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll, a great documentary about Chuck Berry, spent a decade working with Ray Charles to capture the story of an American icon. Ray’s magnetic genius and quiet sweetness are portrayed in equal proportion, and in rare Hollywood fashion, the demons that haunt him are also given a fair share of screen time. From a script by Hackford and James L. White, we are given a story told with heavy use of flashbacks. The flashback sequences (shot with gorgeous color saturation by Pawel Edelman) are a bit off-putting at first, but eventually the rhythms of the scenes begin to take on a fluid form. And when the music comes alive, so does the film.

The music in the film practically begs the audience to get up and dance. Spontaneous eruptions of sound help bring this somewhat traditional musical biography to explosive life. Ray’s style was inimitable, but Jamie Foxx somehow manages to thoroughly convince us that he is Ray Charles. His body language, mannerisms, the inflection in his raspy voice, and the way he plays piano are all so much like Ray that we practically forget that we’re watching an actor pretending to be Ray. In effect, Foxx becomes Ray Charles, and we are mesmerized by the depth and nuances of his performance. It is a star-making vehicle if ever there was one. Trained classically on the piano, Foxx is known to most movie-goers as a comedian. Here, with his own piano playing featured throughout the film, and his incredible gift for subtle humor, Foxx has created his own legendary, virtuoso performance. Come Oscar time, look for his name to be called not just in the list nominees, but as winner for Best Actor.

—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett

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