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Baby, it's all right

Biopic 'Ray' proudly goes by the numbers, and Jamie Foxx is No. 1.

October 29, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

From the moment director Taylor Hackford starts "Ray" with a shot of Jamie Foxx's fingers hitting the piano keys and breaking into the unmistakable rhythms of "What'd I Say," it's clear that Ray Charles' unstoppable music will power this film. It's axiomatic that any picture with songs like "I Got a Woman," "Georgia on My Mind," "Hit the Road Jack" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" is going to get cut all the slack it needs.

"Ray" in fact turns out to be a proudly conventional film that combines an involving true story, irresistible music and a charismatic performance in a way that makes us not only forgive but actually almost relish how standard the presentation is.

Though Charles does most of the soundtrack singing and playing, it is Foxx (a gifted pianist in real life) whose dominating performance as the blind singer is the essence of "Ray's" success. Even those who've seen the former comic actor go from strength to strength in his earlier serious films ("Any Given Sunday," "Ali," "Collateral") will be impressed by the way he emerges here as a full-blown dramatic star.

The actor spent considerable time with Charles before the singer's death earlier this year and does an uncanny job duplicating his mannerisms. But his performance goes well beyond impersonation. Foxx takes this role and runs with it, imbuing his character with all the characteristics -- nerve, shrewdness, self-interest and a keen sense of humor -- that the real Ray Charles needed to overcome the obstacles to his success.

One of the striking things about "Ray" is the way Foxx's performance gives the uncanny impression of watching the real Charles reliving his life on screen. The actor makes us believe that what's in front of our eyes really happened, which turns out to be more of a feat than might be imagined.

That's because so much of the script (by James L. White from a story by director Hackford and White) fits so snugly into the traditional been-there confines of movie biography. The specifics may be Charles' own, but the dialogue is so on-the-nose and the overall dramatic thrust so familiar -- talented man haunted by childhood trauma, hurting his marriage by sleeping around, drawn to and finally kicking heroin -- that much of what happens to Charles is completely predictable.

What paradoxically saves the situation, aside from Foxx's galvanizing performance, is that Hackford believes passionately in the value of the well-worn conventions he's recapitulating. When you combine that conviction with the reality that we're so conditioned to biopics being structured this way that we're more than comfortable with the approach, you get a film that is wholly entertaining despite its shortcomings.

It also doesn't hurt that Charles' story is a long and involving one, told with the aid of multiple flashbacks and a great number of characters. Adroitly cast by Nancy Klopper, "Ray" showcases more talented African American actors than most studios will feature in an entire year of releases.

Making perhaps the strongest impression is the film's least known performer, a debuting Sharon Warren, who appears early and unforgettably as Charles' stick-thin firebrand of a mother, Aretha Robinson. "Always remember your promise to me," she insists to her son in an early flashback. "Don't let nobody or nothing turn you into no cripple."

"Ray's" narrative proper begins with the young musician taking a bus out of the South to Seattle, where he meets a young Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate) and falls under the domination of a manipulative club owner.

But Charles, whose mantra was "I might be blind but I ain't stupid," was impossible to take advantage of for long. Becoming his own man and going on the road, he refused to use either a cane or a dog. He developed a variety of strategies for coping with blindness, from insisting on being paid in singles to using his ears as his eyes. And, following other band members, he found himself drawn to the blandishments of heroin.

Gradually, Charles meets the key people in his life: wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington) and Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong), who wants him to develop a personal style, something Charles initially resists because, "When you're blind you ain't got that many choices. What if people don't like who I am?"

They did. Charles went on to a musical career that included 12 Grammys, 76 singles on the bestseller charts and more than 75 albums. But numbers can't indicate the influence of a musician who transcended genres and created new ones, who mastered styles including jazz and country and western and is credited with combining gospel and rhythm and blues to create soul. It's hard to separate his only-in-America story from that of American popular music, hard not to be impressed by his aspirations, his abilities, his unforeseen artistic trajectory.

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