The problem with Hollywood biopics is that most filmmakers are so enamored of their subject that they offer little in the way of real insight or criticism. This is especially true when the focus is a beloved artist or musician. There are, of course, the rare exceptions in the genre (Alex Cox’s Sid And Nancy comes to mind) but more often than not the approach is one of reverence, nostalgia or, on occasion, whimsy (Ed Wood anyone?). Director Taylor Hackford’s Ray falls into the first category, creating a respectful, if not particularly penetrating, homage to Ray Charles.
From Depression-era Florida to the height of Charles’ success in the ’50s and ’60s, Hackford finds plenty of melodrama in the musician’s life. His struggle with blindness, his long bout of heroin addiction and his rampant infidelity provide more than enough grist for the mill. What’s missing, however, is a meaningful exploration of Charles’ musical genius.
It’s never easy to capture a person’s life in 2-1/2 hours, but Hackford’s predictable narrative relies on so many montage sequences that the movie ultimately plays like a highlights reel. Sure, all the story beats are there: the early years as an exploited piano player, the discovery by Atlantic records, the big hits, the drug addiction and family woes, the moment of redemption and, finally, the happy ending. But it doesn’t add up to anything.
Furthermore, Hackford relies on heavy-handed hallucinatory flashbacks for the film’s psychological underpinnings. Unable to find anything to say about Charles’ life, he overemphasizes the impact of his brother George, who drowned during childhood. It’s not hard to predict that the film will end with Ray shaking the monkey off his back by coming to terms with his sibling’s death. It’s a hackneyed way to sum up Charles’ genius and ignores the final 40 years of his life.
What makes Ray worth watching, however, is Jamie Foxx’s remarkable performance. Coupled with his terrific turn in Collateral, Foxx has proven that he’s an actor to watch. There is, already, talk of an Oscar nomination and, for the most part, it’s well-deserved. Foxx meticulously and convincingly re-creates Ray Charles — so much that it’s hard to believe that he’s lip-synching to Charles’ vocals in the musical segments.
However, he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. He never makes Ray his own. It’s a note-perfect mimicry, but it’s not a true character creation.
Ultimately, what makes Ray a real pleasure is the music. Charles’ toe-tapping, heart-thumping R&B is passionately infectious and Foxx’s bouncing body jitterbug is a dead-on imitation of the blind soul king. As each energetic and soulful hit pops up in the film, it becomes clear that Charles deserves his status as a musical icon. Wisely, Ray showcases these numbers, letting the music speak for itself.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].