An old sweet song

Rated 4.0

A couple of the best moments in the new Ray Charles biopic are also among the chanciest and most artificial in the film. In one, a hotel room quarrel between the man and one of his lovers morphs into a performance of “Hit the Road, Jack.” In a second, we are given to understand that another Ray Charles classic was created impromptu onstage in order to fill out a three-hour show.

In those moments and several others, Taylor Hackford’s Ray is less biopic than old-fashioned movie musical, albeit with the Charles blend of country/blues/gospel/rock instead of Broadway show tunes. But even with Hollywood clichàs hovering in the wings, these are the most powerful and endearing moments in a film in which music, drama and characterization are always linked at one level or another, yet with the music making a greater claim on us than anything else.

Inasmuch as his music is the main reason for our being interested in the life of Ray Charles, this music-centric approach makes good sense. But that’s not to say Hackford and an excellent cast shortchange us on character and drama. While Charles’ womanizing and heroin addiction insure that the clichàs of celebrity biography will come into play, the chief performances and Jamie Foxx’s in particular have a concise, beautifully articulated emotional force that simply rises above the hints of moralistic clichà.

Foxx’s brilliant incarnation of Charles’ body language and physical presence seems especially inspired. There is excellent supporting work with several of the women in Ray’s story—Kerry Washington as his wife Della Bea, Regina King as Margie Hendrix of the Raelettes, Aujanue Ellis as Margie’s predecessor as on-the-road mistress and Sharon Warren as Ray’s fiercely influential mother. And Curtis Armstrong is thoroughly, and somewhat unexpectedly, effective as the Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ehretgun.