Ray, director Taylor Hackford’s 15-years-in-the-making biography of Ray Charles, begins as you might hope: with 1959’s “What’d I Say (Part 1)” pulsing on the soundtrack, the organ’s low moans building toward that familiar, funky frenzy. It’s a bracing thrill served up before a word of dialogue has been delivered. (Hackford uses the original records, and Ray‘s soundtrack plays like a greatest hits, from the early jive of “Mess Around” to the Atlantic soul to the ABC corn.) The song, which will resurface later in the movie as Charles (played by Jamie Foxx) composes it on the spot for a night’s entertainment, is the highest high note available to a director trying to hit the low notes, too.
Charles himself never shied away from the awful truth. His 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray (co-written with David Ritz), tells all and hides nothing, from Charles’ serial infidelities to his smack habit to his being an infamous skinflint. Dropped casually were admissions of guilt over hitting women and ruining his marriage and ditching drugs only when jail time loomed. Such dark revelations ran counter to Charles’ grinning, amiable onstage facade.
Hackford loves his subject, the iconoclast who became an influence who became an institution, and he doesn’t necessarily apologize for him. Ray doesn’t skimp on the sordid tales of how he nearly missed the birth of his son because he was in bed with another woman, or how he mistreated longtime friends and bandmates when money was involved. Nor does it give short shrift to the music that made Charles immortal, his heroic fusion of blues and gospel, his forays into country and big-band bop, and his fondness for saccharine ballads. But Hackford, in his square and eventually overlong biography that’s far better to listen to than to look at, lets Charles off the hook more than Brother Ray did himself. Hackford almost suggests that Charles was allowed his indiscretions because he was traumatized as a child. (When he was 5, Ray witnessed his younger brother George drown in a wash tub; he lost his sight shortly after to undiagnosed glaucoma.) The art, in Hackford’s presentation of James White’s screenplay, makes up for the artist’s flaws; we forgive because of what he gave and gave up.
The women in the cast are uniformly astonishing, especially Regina King as Margie Hendricks, the Raelette who let Ray into her bed, and Kerry Washington as Della, the wife Charles treated like an afterthought. Most notable of all is first-timer Sharon Warren as Aretha Robinson, Ray’s mother and the woman who would never let her boy’s blindness stand in his way. The scene in which she forces Ray to fend for himself in the darkness, despite every maternal instinct to guide her son, is overwhelming.
One huge problem with Ray is that it possesses the slick, sterile artifice of a 1980s made-for-TV movie. People here don’t talk the way they do in real life. Every key moment in Charles’ career is marked by someone informing him that, wow, yeah, this is a key moment in his career. “Nobody’s ever combined R&B and gospel,” says Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) during Charles’ early days on the label. “You’re onto something big here.” And every event in his life is marked by the birth of a song. After he beds Della, Ray jumps to the piano to play “I’ve Got a Woman.” A breakup with Hendricks leads right into “Hit the Road, Jack.”
But Foxx transcends the movie, elevating it beyond its status as conventional biopic. His is less impression than inhabitation, a complete submersion of the actor into the character. Foxx brings to the affair what Hackford occasionally would prefer to leave behind — the anger and the callousness, the ruthlessness and the bitterness, the cunning behind the charm. If only the movie contained half as much life as Foxx, it would be something truly remarkable — a movie with soul rather than one merely about it.