Soul of a bluesman
A couple of serious storytelling flaws can’t overshadow Jamie Foxx’s incredible work as Ray Charles in Ray, a movie that pretty much ensures Foxx won’t be making any more Booty Calls in the near future.
While some performers have received accolades in recent years for portraying real-life people (Will Smith in Ali, Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane in Auto Focus) they didn’t come close to nailing their characters to the level that Foxx nails Charles. All his physical mannerisms, including that tremendous smile, the constant swaying, and especially the keyboard playing—Foxx himself is an accomplished musician—are captured in a performance that will leave many mouths agape with awe.
Recordings—old and new—from Charles himself (who cooperated with director Taylor Hackford until his death last June) substitute for Foxx’s voice, who does an excellent job with the lip synch. A couple of moments when Foxx sings a few notes left me wondering if Hackford could’ve gotten away with Foxx doing his own singing. While nobody can replicate Charles’s incredible vocals, Foxx seems capable of delivering a worthy singing tribute. Had he more of a chance to do his own singing, his work here could’ve rivaled the likes of Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
The film tells the Ray Charles story from his childhood, when he witnessed the drowning death of his younger brother and went blind at age 7, to 1979 where Charles was welcomed back to Georgia after being banned for refusing to play a segregated show. While dark aspects of the Charles story—mainly the drugs and womanizing—are covered in a seemingly honest and straightforward approach, one story thread takes a rather bizarre approach to a tragic occurrence.
There are moments when Foxx reaches into suitcases, or falls down and finds his hands thrashing around in water. This is meant to symbolize Charles’s lifelong struggle with guilt after doing nothing as he watched his younger brother drown in a bath basin. Hackford’s insistence on including this strangeness takes away from the picture’s sense of reality. Did Charles claim to have these sorts of hallucinations in real life? Showing Charles grabbing the dead, hallucinated limb of his younger brother in a suitcase seems like quite the narrative leap.
While the film is more than two and a half hours long, it could’ve been a little longer. It’s a shame that it skips from somewhere around 1965 (after Charles kicks a 20-year heroin addiction) to ‘79 and then ends. The 14-year skip feels abrupt for a film that has taken plenty of time in telling its story. These glitches keep the film from being a great biopic along the lines of Malcolm X.
In addition to the Foxx performance, something that helps the film rise above its faults is a screenplay that is willing to depict Charles’s unsavory side. While Foxx always keeps the legend likeable, the movie doesn’t shy away from the things that nearly derailed the man’s career and destroyed his family. The depiction of Charles’s first experimentation with heroin is devastating. Foxx sells this moment of Charles’s yearning to escape the darkness and boredom of his blindness with a heartbreaking honesty.
Supporting performances from Kerry Washington as Charles’ long-suffering wife and Regina King as backup singer/mistress Margie Hendricks are superb. And, of course, every time a Ray Charles song swells from the speakers, it’s bliss. The film is far from perfect, but Foxx is all but assured an Oscar nomination. In a strange movie year, Foxx’s candidacy seems to be the only sure thing right now.