Ray follows the most volatile period of the legendary Ray Charles' career--from the time he was young man to his meteoric rise to global fame. Although well-crafted and meaningful, the story itself doesn't hold as much resonance as the performances, especially by Jamie Foxx, who takes the film to a higher level.
From the moment Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx), as a bold and blind teenager, boards a Florida bus bound for the jazz scene in Seattle, it's clear the young man has the tools and talents to make a difference. Touring across the Southern musical circuit, the soulful singer gains a reputation, which leads to his discovery by Atlantic Records, who put a stamp on the piano man's inimitable style, incorporating a myriad of musical styles from jazz to R&B to gospel and country. Still, as his star rises, Ray is haunted by his traumatic childhood--going blind at the age of five shortly after witnessing his younger brother's accidental drowning--leaving an indelible effect on his soul and manifesting itself in a heroin addiction as well as many torrid love affairs. But Ray is no fool, having been raised by a fiercely independent mother who insisted he make his own way in the world; this one-of-a-kind genius knows what he wants--to give the world a new way to hear music.
Wow. Foxx's portrait of the man, the myth, the legend is nothing short of remarkable, a tour de force. Of course, by now, everyone has heard how Foxx had his eyes prosthetically sealed shut, so that he couldn't cheat at playing blind, and, as an accomplished pianist in his own right, mastered Charles' fingering techniques on the keys. Foxx also captures the singer's hushed stutter as well as the unique walk--but that's just all the technical stuff. What the actor also manages to do is infuse the character with some qualities you wouldn't necessarily associated with the celebrated musician, including a raw and magnetic sexuality (as he caresses a woman's wrist and sings to her sweetly, you melt right along with the lady) and a steely, almost abusive, determination to succeed. As Foxx draws you into Charles' world, reaching out not only through the music but with his vision, it's palpable and immediate. To be honest, it'll be hard to find another actor this year who could beat Foxx in the Oscar race. The rest of the cast ain't too shabby either, with standouts including Curtis Armstrong (the same guy who played Booger in Revenge of the Nerds, if you can believe it) as famed Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun; Kerry Washington as Charles' long-suffering wife Della Bea; Regina King as Charles' fiery mistress and powerful backup singer Margie Hendricks and newcomer Sharon Warren as Aretha Robinson, Ray's hardworking and dedicated mother.
Ray is certainly a labor of love for director Taylor Hackford (Proof of Life). Having optioned the rights to the Ray Charles' story way back in 1987, it took a lot of cajoling to get studio execs to go for it. ''I kept hearing, 'Well, it's an interesting story, but it should be a TV movie,''' Hackford told Entertainment Weekly--and therein lies Ray's inherent problem. While certainly worth dramatizing, especially with the tragic loss of his brother, going blind and kicking a nasty heroin addiction, the story of Charles' personal heartbreaks and struggles is also one that needs a lot of razzle dazzle to make it feature film material. Ray manages to shine bright for the most part, largely due to Foxx's presence and the wonderfully staged musical moments, with all the great Charles' tunes blasting out into the audience (watch for spontaneous applause when ''Georgia On My Mind'' cues up). But even with all that, Hackford's limited style and average camera work sometimes takes away from the film's big-screen qualities, leaving you with what seems like a network television event--a really good one, mind you, but a TV movie just the same.
If not for Jamie Foxx's electrifying performance as the one and only Ray Charles, as well as the extraordinary music that made him famous, Ray could have easily fallen under a made-for-television banner.