Film — Ray (R)

Ray (R)

by Amy Diaz

Jamie Foxx says “bring it” to anyone who thinks they can beat him for best actor Oscar with his guns-blazing that’s-how-they-do-it performance as Ray Charles in the biopic Ray.

You can see it, when an Olympic medalist knows that she’s done her best and just dominated her sport. When a musician is so completely “on” that he brings the crowd to something near ecstasy with his performance. When a comedian is so hot that he just kills his audience, leaving them tear-stained and sore in the stomach from so many deep laughs.

You can see it in every gesture from Foxx in Ray. He’s given the year’s flawless unbeatable performance and done it with such deftness that even his consciousness of this solid victory doesn’t get in the way of movie.

The film follows Charles from the beginning of his musical career to the mid-1960s end of his heroin habit. The parts about the music tell the story of a man who was an innovator with a talent that extended past every idea about excellence. The parts about the man tell the story of a person deeply scarred by a difficult childhood whose need for female attention would make it hard for him to have a happy family life and whose assorted drug addictions would make it near impossible to have a sober life.

Charles (Foxx) arrives in Seattle shortly after the war and begins his career playing Nat King Cole covers. He also begins with an unscrupulous partner who essentially pimps Charles out to a club owner. Charles gains from this experience a firm belief that he has to control his own money and sets off on the lonely and difficult road of earning a name in the music business. Eventually, he hooks up with Atlantic Records and, thanks to executives such as Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), gets the space he needs to find his own sound—the soul created from a mix of gospel, jazz and blues. The heavy gospel influence made the music particularly scandalous for its time, one of the many hurdles Charles had to clear.

He falls in love with and quickly marries Della Bea (Kerry Washington). The child of a strong single mother (Sharon Warren), Ray seems to want to recreate in adulthood the family he never had as a child. But he can’t resist the lure of commitment-free sex and adoration on the road. He takes up with backup singers, first Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and then Margie Hendricks (Regina King). At one point, he tells an angry Margie that he won’t leave his family. She points out, correctly, that between the road, the drugs and her, he’s already left his family.

The drugs, specifically heroin, loom very large over his life. He first starts getting high, the movie suggests, as a way to get over stage fright but seeks out harder stuff in an attempt to blot out the memory of his younger brother’s death (a drowning accident Ray witnessed as a child) and his own struggle with blindness two years later.

Remove Foxx’s performance and the trajectory of the movie (sadness and struggle in youth, the scrappy career beginnings, a marriage quickly followed by infidelity, rocket-fast success, career problems caused by addiction, triumphant conquering of said addiction) is your standard biopic stuff. Remove Charles’ music and you have something that could easily serve as the story of dozens of assorted superstars. The movie itself is, admittedly, a standard format.

But like an artist who turns a paint-by-numbers kit into a startling and unique piece of artwork, Foxx, with help from Charles’ music, brings vibrancy and freshness to the everyday. The movie provides a deeper appreciation—one easy to lose when you just happen to stumble on “Hit the Road, Jack” on oldies radio—for what Charles achieved in terms of spanning genres. His use of gospel as the foundation of soul in some ways prefigures the way hip-hop samples from other genres to create a whole new way to look at music.

And, by throwing a spotlight on the music and the way it evolves, the movie also shines the light of our full attention on Foxx, who responds like a champion.

Showing at: Cinemagic, Flaship Cinemas.

- Amy Diaz 

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH