Ray of light 

A review of Ray (PG-13)

click to enlarge Jamie Foxx as the legendary Ray Charles.
  • Jamie Foxx as the legendary Ray Charles.

*Ray (PG-13)
Warner Brothers

The year 2004 is turning out to be the year of the biopic for lack of much original drama. Over the holidays we'll see movie bios of Alfred Kinsey, Howard Hughes and Alexander the Great. And of course there's Ray, the much-awaited film biography of America's beloved soul man, Ray Charles, who died earlier this year at the age of 73.

Charles reportedly worked with screenwriters James L. White and Taylor Hackford on his story and was given a screening of the film before he passed away. That makes it all the more endearing that this screen bio depicts a deeply flawed man whose talents transcended his demons, but whose demons nonetheless colored the bulk of his life.

The surprise of Ray is not the music, which is fabulous. It's not Jamie Foxx's performance -- tour de force is putting it mildly. The surprise is that despite a blocky, chronological, somewhat plodding story line, the development of a public character we all felt we knew well contains revelations that, while not particularly pretty, enrich the legend of Ray Charles, bringing him a bit closer to the ground.

The film begins in the late '40s, with Ray as a young man leaving the South for Seattle to play music. He charms the Jim Crow-era bus driver into taking him along, pretending to be a soldier who's lost his eyesight on the beaches of Normandy. He's an awkward country boy from a black sharecropping community in north Florida, we soon learn via the color-saturated flashbacks that punctuate the film throughout.

For the most part, these flashbacks work well, largely because of the startling presence of young actress Sharon Warren who plays Ray's mother, Aretha, and the effective natural performances of the child actors playing young Ray and his little brother George, killed in a tragic accident. When Ray goes blind from glaucoma at age 7, we witness several startling scenes, including one when his mother, looking barely older than 18, watches on silently as the child inches his way around a room, hearing his way forward. Aretha implores Ray never to become a cripple, to keep working hard to find a place in the seeing world, eventually sending her little boy off to the school for the blind. Her determination and her heartbreak are equal parts compelling, coming back to inspire and to haunt her son in years to come.

Ray Charles became a junkie for the 17 years he spent on the road making his name and his fame -- a subject that could also have become hackneyed but didn't. Ray is one of the most engrossing glimpses into the life of a musician on the road that I can remember, filled with rich period scenes of urban nightclubs and a rising black middle class worshipping music and rhythm. Though Ray marries Houston gospel singer Bea (portrayed in a strong performance by Kerry Washington) early in his career, the 20 years depicted in the film are spent predominantly on the road, womanizing, shooting up and making glorious music born of a complicated and utterly unique genius.

Foxx is marvelous, proving finally that he can do anything. Trained as a classical pianist, rumor is he did his own piano playing, and his lip-synching is flawless. Charles' strange physical tics are masterfully captured and the speaking voice with its odd rhythmic pulse is portrayed naturally, as if the actor has indeed become the subject. There's not a single moment -- with the exception of the unfortunate dream sequence at the end when Foxx plays Charles with his eyes open -- that we feel this actor acting.

Ray captures the essence of Ray Charles, a man trapped in darkness, bringing light to the world and to himself through the transcendent force of music.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Chapel Hills 15, Tinseltown, Cinemark 16

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