The agony and the ecstasy of Ray Charles's long journey cry out for a grittier, more direct movie than Taylor Hackford's Ray -- a movie that's less processed and less outwardly opulent than this one. For much of these two hours and forty minutes, there's almost no stylistic syncopation, aural or visual, to match the wildly fluctuating rhythms of the magisterial soul singer's troubled life. Just as Clint Eastwood's paint-by-numbers directing failed to capture the essence of Charlie Parker in Bird, Hackford very nearly smothers the vivid spirit of the late Brother Ray (he died June 11, at 73) with synthetic, TV-movie-of-the-week conventions.
Thank heaven, then, for Jamie Foxx. Wherever Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman), screenwriter James L. White and the all-too-sunny cinematographer Pawel Edelman fail, Foxx leaps forward in his beautifully studied, detail-perfect portrayal of an artist who became a force of nature in American music even as he battled the demons of unresolved childhood trauma, obsessive womanizing and heroin addiction. As if in defiance of Hackford's blandness, the actor seems to burrow deeper and deeper into his character as each scene unfolds, giving off authentic heat and heart in everything from the blind singer's most characteristic physical mannerism -- the rhythmic, shoulder-rolling, skyward-pointing head waggle that signaled just how far he'd lost himself inside "Night Time Is the Right Time" or "Georgia" -- to an uncanny grasp of the emotional space surrounding Ray Charles, a space that always seemed as painful as it was inviolate. The man who dared to fuse gospel with blues came to be loved the world over, married twice and fathered twelve children by seven women (a domestic body count Ray fails to acknowledge), but the gifted comedian-turned-actor who plays Charles captures his essential aloneness with great poignancy. "I might be blind, but I ain't stupid," Foxx tells us early on. It is about that time that actor and character completely merge in one of the most perfectly nuanced screen performances of recent years. He is sublime, right down to his lip-synching on a dozen Ray Charles classics -- numbers staged in a thrilling style that transcends Hackford's flatfootedness in the non-singing segments.
The untidy elements of the life, many drawn from Charles's 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray, others from interviews and the often unreliable lore of the road, are somewhat sanitized here: Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, a principal financier of the film and a fundamentalist Christian, reportedly ordered some of the story's gamier aspects to be toned down. But that doesn't mean Charles's drug addiction is sidestepped -- it's not -- and if there's a Raelette he didn't bed, we can't name her. Otherwise, Ray conforms -- a bit too slavishly -- to the dramatic arc common to almost every showbiz biography ever shot. Poverty and innocence in rural northern Florida give way to brutal dues-paying under crooked bandleaders and greedy managers on the Chitlin' Circuit, then to fame, temptation and corruption, at last to spiritual renewal. Old friend Quincy Jones (played here, for a fleeting moment, by Larenz Tate) once summed up Charles's career with admirable succinctness: "pain converted into joy, darkness converted into light," and that might serve pretty well as Ray's underlying principle.
On our way to joy and light, we get huge doses of torment and great dollops of soul. One of the last things Charles ever saw before glaucoma took his sight at age seven was the horror of his younger brother drowning in a washtub, and he never quite got over the guilt. He also endured bigotry in the South, unscrupulous club owners (he started asking for his pay in countable $1 bills), fellow musicians who cut him from the social calendar, and shady record producers. No angel himself, he married young (Kerry Washington does a good, solid job as his long-suffering wife, Della Bea) and began philandering and shooting "boy" shortly thereafter. Foxx takes as much delight in Charles's ploy of determining a woman's beauty by squeezing her forearm (slim is good) as he does in reproducing that rocking, crossed-armed self-embrace that became so familiar to club patrons and concert-goers.
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The heroin-shooting scenes are a bit more candid than, say, the whitewash Hollywood gave Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Hackford manages to integrate deeply personal Charles tunes like "I Got a Woman" and "Hit the Road, Jack" into the dramatic subtext of his inflammatory affairs with backup singers Mary Ann Fisher (Aujanue Ellis) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King). Suffice it to say that a Raelette scorned is a Raelette who will get up in your face. By the time Ray progresses to "Unchain My Heart," Foxx has thoroughly convinced us just how imprisoned that heart really was.
But the scrub brush comes into use here and there. We never do see or hear "Let's Go Get Stoned," and if we can believe Hackford and first-time writer White, the most important woman in Brother Ray's life was his martyred mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren), a fierce independent who instilled self-reliance early and often in her tiny blind son. We see Mama in a wearying series of gauzy, sentimentalized flashbacks to the red dirt of Florida -- five or six too many of them, in fact.
Among the intriguing details of Ray's life and career are the revelation that the deathless "What'd I Say" came into being as an set-filler improvised on the bandstand one night, that Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong), a gnome in glasses, simply knocked on his door in New York, contract in hand. After one set of Raelettes walked out of a recording studio in a huff, the unbothered Ray simply sang all the backup parts himself. He was a pioneer in civil-rights activism among musicians, we learn, and we are told that it was the fine saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman who introduced Charles to heroin, albeit at Ray's own urging. Fascinating stuff, all of it.
In the end, we don't get quite the fluent, highly personal film Ray Charles deserves, because Hackford is a journeyman, not an innovator. What we do get is an electrifying, completely heartfelt performance worthy of the singer's genius and his hunger for self-determination. After watching this, we can't stop loving you, Jamie Foxx.