(director: Taylor Hackford; screenwriters: James L. White/based on a story by Mr. Hackford and Mr. White; cinematographer: Pawel Edelman; editor: Paul Hirsch; music: Ray Charles; cast: Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles), Kerry Washington (Della Bea Robinson), Clifton Powell (Jeff Brown), Aunjanue Ellis (Mary Ann Fisher), Harry Lennix (Joe Adams), Larenz Tate (Quincy Jones), Sharon Warren (Mother, Aretha), Regina King (Margie Hendricks), Curtis Armstrong (Ahmet Ertegun), Richard Schiff (Jerry Wexler), Bokeem Woodbine (Fathead Newman), Robert Wisdom (Jack Lauderdale), Chris Thomas King (Lowell Fulsom), Kurt Fuller (Sam Clark), Terrone Bell (Young George Robinson), David Krumholtz (Milt Shaw), Terrence Dashon Howard (Gossie McKee), Denise Dowse (Marlene); Runtime: 151; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Howard Baldwin/Karen Baldwin/Taylor Hackford/Stuart Benjamin; Universal Pictures; 2004)
“Won me over because of Jamie Foxx’s powerful performance where he inhabits Charles–capturing the singer’s characteristics.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Director and co-author with James L. White, Taylor Hackford’s (“An Officer and a Gentleman”/”Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”) hardhitting though conventional cliché-ridden biopic on the legendary Ray Charles, who died at 74 this June, won me over because of Jamie Foxx’s powerful performance where he inhabits Charles–capturing the singer’s characteristics, love of music, flawed life, suspicious nature, embittered fight over segregation, sinful attitude and struggles to reach the top at any cost. It has little to say that is impactful about psychology or social history other than some facile observations about Ray’s soul scarred from a rough childhood and the filmmaker taking a few jabs at the dishonesty of the music business. It works its way through its formulaic moments by just moving along with a new event in Ray’s life at every turn and another song played–with the lip-synched singing expertly achieved. Ray is depicted as an American treasure but also a heroin addict, womanizer, and cold-hearted businessman who knew how to get ahead in the record business.
The film chronicles the singer’s humble beginnings as a child raised in rural north Florida (he was born in Albany, Georgia), his tough love relationship with his single parent mom, and the trauma of losing first his younger brother George in a drowning accident then his eyesight due to glaucoma at the age of seven. The overlong story is saved from tedium by the continuous tracks of music spicing things up considerably, which include such familiar crowd pleasers as “I Got a Woman,” “Unchain My Heart,” “Hit the Road, Jack,” “What’d I Say,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Doin’ the Mess Around,” “Born to Lose,” and “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So.”
Ray’s climb to international icon status begins on the chitlin’-circuit dance halls where he’s perceived as a Nat King Cole-style singer (anything to please the crowd) but becomes an innovator by fusing the sounds of gospel and the blues (soon he taps into all musical styles), which enables him to rise to the top spot on the pop and R&B charts. His rise to fame and fortune is attributed to taking chances by striking out on his own and great rapport with the audience. Ray started his showbiz career in the 1940s as a sideman piano player/singer and reached the top in the 1960s when he formed his own group signing with Atlantic Records and then going on to even more success when signing with major record company ABC-Paramount (Charles was allowed to keep ownership of his master tapes, something even Sinatra didn’t have). The narrative returns from time to time to dream-like flashbacks of events during Charles’s childhood that left him traumatized–many surreal shots of him visualizing water. The film follows a good chunk of the first half of Charles’s 56-year career–until he got arrested in Montreal for drug possession (his second brush with the law) and his successful rehab to get off heroin in the mid-60s (supposedly remaining clean for the rest of his life). The film suddenly ends with Charles in withdrawal and returning as a model citizen to live with faithful, long-suffering wife Bea (Kerry Washington) in their Beverly Hills mansion. Wifey endured knowing about Ray’s backup singer girlfriends Margie Hendricks and Mary Ann Fisher, and the child hubby had in secret with Mary Ann.
Ray is a solid biopic about paying the price to achieve success and overcoming a disability to become one of the country’s most beloved performers, but it never rises above its limited ambitions despite Foxx’s Oscar quality performance.
REVIEWED ON 11/12/2004 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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