Ray is a 2004 biographical film focusing on 30 years of the life of rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles. By the early 1960’s Ray Charles had accomplished his dream. He’d come of age musically. He’d made it to Carnegie Hall. The hit records “Georgia,” “Born to Lose” successively kept climbing to the top of the charts. He’d made his first triumphant European concert tour in 1960 (a feat which, except for 1965, he’s repeated at least once a year ever since). He had taken virtually every form of popular music and broken through its boundaries with such awe inspiring achievements as the LP’s “Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz” and “Modern Sounds in Country & Western.” Rhythm & blues (or “race music” as it had been called) became universally respectable through his efforts. Jazz found a mainstream audience it had never previously enjoyed.
And country & western music began to chart an unexpected course to general acceptance, then worldwide popularity. And along the way Ray Charles was instrumental in the invention of rock & roll. Born in a poor African American town in central Florida, Ray Charles went blind at the age of 7. With the staunch support of his determined single mother, he developed the fierce resolve, wit and incredible talent that would eventually enable him to overcome not only Jim Crow Racism and the cruel prejudices against the blind, but also discover his own sound which revolutionized American popular music. Nonetheless, as Ray’s unprecedented fame grew, so did his weakness for drugs and women, until they threatened to strip away the very things he held most dear. This little known story of Ray Charles’ meteoric rise from humble beginnings, his successful struggle to excel in a sighted world and his eventual defeat of his own personal demons make for an inspiring and unforgettable true story of human triumph. Taylor Hackford’s
Ray is at heart little more than a run-of-the mill biopic that hits all the familiar story points for that genre. What keeps this film from becoming totally pedestrian is the fierce, commanding performance of Jamie Foxx. This is not an impersonation of Ray Charles, nor is it a vain attempt to bask in the glow of Ray Charles the celebrity. Foxx finds difficult emotional places to go to, and his Ray Charles is often more interesting than the one Hackford seems to want to tell the audience about. One can believe that these amazing songs are coming from this man, and that may be the biggest compliment one can pay to the performance. That point also leads to the other aspect of the film that keeps it afloat: the superb music. The film was made with Charles’ approval, and he allowed the filmmakers to use his original recordings. Had this been a play, a one-man show with the same music, it would make for a fascinating and memorable evening. As he always does, Hackford fills his film with convention after convention, and in doing so, undercuts the real and complicated issues apparent both in Foxx and in the music.