(PG-13) 3 1/2 starsEd Johnson-Ott

There are a number of problems with the biography Ray, but the film succeeds nonetheless, thanks to two extraordinary men: Ray Charles and Jamie Foxx. I'll carp about the flaws later; let's talk about what's right first.

In less than a year, we lost Johnny Cash (Sept. 12, 2003) and Ray Charles (June 10, 2004), two towering figures of enormous talent who repeatedly redefined whole musical genres. Their songs became standards. Their music drew together people from wildly disparate social, economic and cultural backgrounds. Terms like "beloved entertainer" are insufficient for artists that cast such large shadows. As hokey as it may sound, they were giants, really.

Ray is filled to spillover with Ray Charles music. Even if the biography was completely inept (and it is not - it is ept), you could still just sit back and enjoy the glorious sounds. Charles led a colorful life and Jamie Foxx makes it all ring true. The comic (In Living Color) has shown his acting gifts before, in films ranging from the football epic Any Given Sunday to the recent thriller Collateral, and his work here is among his best. Aside from a few moments in an ill-conceived dream sequence, he is physically convincing. As for his performance, there is no sense of mimicry. Rather, it seems like he simply is Ray Charles.

The screenplay, co-written by James L. White and director Taylor Hackford, tediously hops back and forth between childhood scenes of young Ray (C.J. Sanders) and a chronological telling of Ray's life from the early '50s into the '60s. We see him at age 21, moving from Florida to Seattle, where he finds work playing in a lounge. His rags to riches musical path is punctuated by flashbacks to Florida in the '30s, as Ray remembers the drowning death of his little brother, his loss of sight at age 7 and the training and life lessons given by his mother (Sharon Warren), who said, "Always remember your promise to me. Don't let nobody turn you into no cripple."

Back to the '50s, where Charles finds his own voice, and increasing fame and fortune with it. Along the way he falls in love and gets married, starting a family with the charming Della Bea (Kerry Washington), whose devotion to her family will be sorely tested. Seems Charles, who assesses the beauty of a woman by feeling her wrist (Huh?), turns out to be a real tomcat. He fathers his own little Brady Bunch while touring, including one with Margie Hendrix (Regina King) of his back-up singers, the Raelettes. Not smart.

He also discovers drugs while on the road and develops a heroin habit that will last for many years. His drug use led to an interesting moment at the screening I attended at the AMC Clearwater Theater on the Northside of Indianapolis.

When the film cut to a shot of the outside of a theater, with the words "Indianapolis, IN" at the bottom of the screen, the audience around me broke into applause and cheers. So far, so good, but wait ... Charles is getting high and is that ... oh, no, it's the police! Moans are heard throughout the theater as Charles is arrested in Indianapolis, our town, damn it, by our own police. More moans are audible a bit later when we learn that the case was settled by a local judge receiving a pay-off from one of Charles' people.

Now I realize that Ray Charles may very well have been targeted for his race, while white artists known for their drug use may have passed through town untouched, but still, how weird it was to hear an audience express civic disappointment because local police arrested a heroin user.

Enough digressing. The story wraps up at the height of Charles' run on the pop charts. Almost every incident in the life of the performer conveniently ends up inspiring another Ray Charles hit (how cheesy). Though the heroin experimentation/addiction/redemption stretches out too long, we receive treats along the way, like the scene where the cagey Charles cuts a deal with a new label promising him an amazing 75 percent of the profits and the rights to his own masters. Best is the segment depicting Charles' refusal to play a segregated Georgia venue, which resulted in a lifetime ban from the state. So how did that resolve itself? Check and see what the title of the state song of Georgia is now.

Ray is a good film about a great man with a great performance by Foxx. It could have been better had the filmmakers followed Charles' lesson and stretched beyond conventions to find a more innovative way of telling their tale. Chopping about 30 minutes out of the two and a half hour opus would have helped. Still, this is a must-see, thanks to Jamie Foxx and Ray Charles.


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