Every biopic of a music star needs an exhilarating breakthrough moment, and Ray--the story of jazz, R&B, gospel, pop, country, and blues genius Ray Charles--has two: the improvisational birth, in a small nightclub, of the down and dirty "What'd I Say" and the lush, studio-session blossoming of "Georgia on My Mind," replete with huge string section and chorus. Taylor Hackford's epic accounting of Ray Charles's life and music does plenty right, but this 152-minute film also makes a couple of big blunders and suffers from certain insurmountable obstacles, leaving Charles a remote figure.
Jamie Foxx (Collateral) plays Charles with energy and impressive verisimilitude: blinded by prosthetics, swaying, and cocking his head, Foxx looks like Charles, and often sounds like him in a Rich Little sort of way. But Foxx's vocal stringency often seems to thin out Ray's humanity--you want to tell Foxx to take a breath and and let it out. Foxx is also hobbled by those prosthetics--so much of any actor's power is in the eyes, and Hackford knows this well enough to give Foxx his eyes back in the film's botched, psychoanalytical dream-vision climax. Charles's inimitable singing voice is, wisely, provided by Charles himself, who cooperated enthusiastically with the film before his death earlier this year; his music cuts like a knife in theatrical digital sound.
The choice by screenwriter James L. White and director Hackford--who made the celebrated Chuck Berry doc Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll--to intersperse Ray's childhood story with his journey to success is intriguing but eventually wearisome, when a to-the-point chronological approach could have saved crucial screen time and avoided jarring edits. In 1948 Florida, Ray's mother (an overripe Sharron Warren) tells him, "Always remember your promise to me. Don't let nobody turn you into no cripple." In one of the most effective dramatic scenes, Hackford and White make poetry of Ray's mother tough-loving him into taking care of himself. When Ray stays incisive, it can be telling and even emotional. In other key scenes, Hackford dramatizes Charles's experimentations in genre and fusion, as well as his rise through Atlantic Records and into an unheard-of ABC Records deal promising him 75% of the profits and the rights to his own masters.
Some of the omissions--particularly Ray's true love of jazz, navigation of studio recording (the "Georgia on My Mind" scene is there and gone), and eventual production of other artists--are felt, and though true and essential, the accounting of Ray's heroin addiction and womanizing is inevitably hackneyed. Hackford would need a separate movie or perhaps a miniseries to deal fairly with the romantic travails of Mrs. Charles (Kerry Washington) versus the back-up Raelettes who shared Ray's bedrooms on the road (Regina King and Aunjanue Ellis). At least one scene between Foxx and King is out-and-out laughable, but Hackford nicely underscores her rejection with Charles's "I Believe to My Soul" ("One of these days, and it won't be long/You're gonna look for me and I'll be gone").
Ray's heroin struggle eventually finds him in a cold-turkey crucible; in that fever, he faces the hurt of his past, including his slow slide into blindness and his guilt over the accidental death of his brother; this pop psychology is more than a little dubious. The film doesn't so much end as give up, tacking on a triumphant career recognition and a simple title card (why not the real Ray singing the conspicuously absent "America the Beautiful"?). Ray is worth seeing, mostly for its colorful period design and lively musical numbers, but this version of the "official story" takes some wrong turns. You'd be better served by the book Brother Ray, which Charles co-wrote with biographer David Ritz, and a pile of the man's albums.