directed by Taylor Hackford
(Universal, 2004)

In his attempts to worm his way into a country band, a blind black youth tells the white band members what he loves about country music: "the great stories." By this point, we've already seen one of those stories unfold: how a black youth named Ray Charles Robinson -- soon to drop the "Robinson" -- wormed his way onto a cross-country bus by telling the driver he'd lost his eyesight in Normandy during the war.

And that's one -- just one -- of the wonders of Ray, Taylor Hackford's story of how the son of a black sharecropper rose to become one of the most powerful pop icons of the 20th century by combining jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues and country music, despite the resistance of record company execs, fellow musicians and some audience members -- and the fact that he'd been blind since age 7.

But Ray is no simple homage to the great Ray Charles, and Hackford, who co-wrote the story, and Jamie Foxx, who won the Oscar for Best Actor with his performance as Charles, don't play it that way. This is a warts-and-all biopic, with no shortage of warts.

Take your pick. There's the womanizing. There's the drug use, starting with marijuana and quickly escalating to heroin. There's the neglect of his family -- wait, make that families. And there's the occasional willingness to turn his back on someone who served him well for someone he believes will serve him better, whether it's fellow musician, backup vocalist or industry shills.

There's also the story -- make that stories -- of his detox and rehab and the demon that followed him for much of his musical life: the untimely death of his younger brother, for which he felt responsible.

It's a big story, covering more than four decades of Charles' musical career, so Hackford has to tell it efficiently, and he does, in part by starting in the middle so he can flash back as he moves forward, in part by creating a trail of images not easily forgotten: Charles' mother pounding on the coffin of her younger son at his funeral, or Charles waiting for the bus to take him to the school for the blind, a crudely lettered sign hung around his neck to identify him.

Just what gave a blind man the vision to overcome all these things is never entirely clear, though Hackford hints at it when Charles explains "My ears gotta be my eyes." That leads us to Charles' music, which could have sufficed to fill a film all by itself, from his humble beginnings with "Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand" to "Unchain My Heart," "Everyday I Have the Blues," "Georgia on My Mind," "Hit the Road, Jack" and the crossover sensation "I Can't Stop Lovin' You."

Best of all, Hackford sets each in a logical juxtaposition with key events in Charles' life so the little stories help tell the big story. And often he cuts away during the songs to catch glimpses of what's going on with Ray's home life, providing a balance of performance and the personal.

Much has been said of Foxx's acting job, and a lot more is likely to be said before we've seen and heard the last of Ray. Suffice it to say, had there never been a Ray Charles, there'd be one now. Foxx makes him live and breathe in front of our eyes the way few biopic figures ever do.

And as if all this weren't enough, or perhaps too much, Hackford surrounds Foxx with a slew of interesting performers, including Kerry Washington as Charles' long-suffering wife, Regina King as his long-suffering mistress and Sharon Warren as his mother, whose suffering was cut short by her early death.

On top of that, there are the richly decorated sets that define the eras through which Charles climbed the musical ladder, in particular the '50s and early '60s. They're reproduced here in lush detail, down to the bad art that adorned music industry office walls.

In short, Ray is a film that's hard to find fault with, unless perhaps you begin to wonder if the sharecroppers' village that Charles grew up in really did have a golden glow about it. And that final flashback -- could it have been a bit shorter and a lot less predictable?

The short answers are: yes and yes. Still, peccadilloes aside, Ray is that rare film that not only allows for repeated viewings -- it begs for them.

Ray Charles' music has already stood the test of time. Ray, it appears, plans to stand right there with it.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 19 March 2005

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