Taylor Hackford’s biopic of soul legend Ray Charles has received a number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and its star Jamie Foxx is the favourite to take home the Best Actor statuette. The film follows the musician from his impoverished childhood to the peak of his success in the sixties. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) was born in 1930 and raised by a single mother (Sharon Warren) in a poor black township in northern Florida. By the age of seven, he had gone blind from glaucoma. His mother was determined that he wouldn’t spend his life in poverty like her and so she was tough on the boy. She forced him to stand on his own two feet, told him never to use his condition as an excuse to fail and, when he was old enough, she sent him away to a special school for the blind. Here the boy learned music and discovered he had a talent for it.
At seventeen, he took a bus to Seattle, shortened his name to Ray Charles (because of famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson) and embarked on a career as a nightclub pianist and performer. It was while working a punishing schedule in the clubs and on the road that he developed the two vices that would bedevil him in later life: a passion for chasing women and a heroin habit. After years of hard work for little money, Charles was spotted by Atlanta Records in the late fifties and he launched his career as a recording artist. He would become one of the most innovative musicians of his era, his eclectic love of music inspiring him to blend blues, gospel, rock and even country to create his own unique sound.
By the early sixties, Ray Charles was one of the superstars of soul. On tour in Houston, Texas, he met his wife, a gospel singer named Della Bea (Kerry Washington). They started a family, although this didn’t stop his womanising. Even taking a permanent mistress (Regina King) on tour wasn’t enough to satisfy him. But while his string of infidelities hurt his marriage, it was his heroin addiction that was slowly destroying him.
Too many Hollywood biopics seem like puffed-up Biography Channel documentaries – we had a string of them last autumn – but here’s one that’s alive as a film and hangs together dramatically. The film is well-structured, beginning with Ray’s arrival in Seattle and judiciously using flashbacks to fill in his childhood, to show us the demons that drove him to his vices and to demonstrate how he reached the heights he did despite his disability. The flashbacks provide the film’s most powerful and moving scene, in which we see exactly how his mother taught the newly blind Ray to depend on his senses. Sugar-coating is kept to a minimum, aside from an ill-advised fantasy scene at the end.
The most interesting material is the behind the scenes look at the career of Ray Charles the musician. It’s amazing how many biopics skip over the very things that make their subjects interesting to leave room for their marital problems. Ray, to its credit, is at least as much about Charles’s career as his personal life. Director Taylor Hackford made an acclaimed documentary about Chuck Berry – Hail! Hail! Rock’N’Roll – and he obviously knows the territory well. He convincingly recreates the entertainment industry of the forties, fifties and sixties, from cheap, smoky nightclubs to packed concert halls to the boardrooms of record companies and, against this background, we learn exactly how and why Ray Charles rose to stardom. It didn’t hurt that his skill at the piano was matched by his canniness at the negotiating table.
On the debit side, Ray is long at two and a half hours and in places it does feel long. The script, which for the most part is entertaining and informative, slides into soap opera when dealing with Charles’s infidelities. Since the issue can’t be satisfyingly resolved in the 1947 – 1966 timeframe the film covers (Ray and Della divorced in 1977), maybe this aspect of his life should have been left in the background, as Howard Hughes’ indiscretions were in The Aviator.
Whatever its other virtues, the film lives or dies on Jamie Foxx’s performance and he’s extraordinary. Okay, you’ve heard that already, you know Foxx has won almost every award going and that he’s the front runner for the Oscar. He isn’t being overpraised. What Foxx has attempted here is unbelievably difficult – not only a complex, three-dimensional acting performance but also an impersonation of a unique and very recognisible celebrity. He pulls it off so successfully that for almost the entire film, I felt like I was watching Ray Charles. Even when Foxx was miming the man’s hits, it didn’t pop into my head that I was watching an actor. The only performance I can immediately think of that compares is Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison in The Doors. If Foxx wins the Oscar, he’ll thoroughly deserve it.
NOTE: Ray has been rated 15 because of its graphic depiction of drug use. I’d argue that the movie has a strong anti-drug message, that it portrays heroin use in the least glamourous light possible and that younger teenagers who might be tempted to experiment with hard drugs should be encouraged to see it, not kept out of it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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