A Ray of Light on a Blue Genius

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How do you make a movie about a rock-'n'-roll icon who didn't die young? The fables of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Johnny Ace, Eddie Cochran and Sam Cooke provided their own curtain lines: a plane or a car crash, a gunshot wound. Their early deaths at the top of their game built little legends — tragic portraits suitable for filming.

But Ray Charles lived his three score and 10. Which is to say, pop music being a fickle muse, that he outlived the history and heat he made 40 to 50 years ago. In a way, the climax to Charles' story came this June, when he died at 73.


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Nice timing, Ray. Those obits were the best trailer for a superb biopic, one that refreshes Charles' luster and fully confirms Jamie Foxx as a scary-good serious actor.

Written by James L. White and director Taylor Hackford, Ray traces Charles' career briskly (given the 2-hr. 32-min. running time) and with a persuasive authenticity. Ray hones his chops on the chitlin circuit, signs with Atlantic Records and starts fusing gospel with blues. The epochal What'd I Say — a group orgasm in 12-bar form — could have wed him to rock 'n' roll. But Charles was as voracious for all kinds of music as he was for women. That is, very.

This plot chugs on parallel tracks, with flashbacks set in Charles' childhood. The career scenes are shot in high-contrast graininess, the early ones in a pellucid sunlight that Charles would soon lose sight of. Those vignettes — his brother drowning as Charles stands paralyzed, his mother sobbing heedlessly on the boy's coffin — have an indelible poignancy. On one radiant afternoon, Charles, now nearly blinded by glaucoma, listens to and memorizes the music of a cricket, a clopping horse and, breathing softly nearby, his mother. "I hear you too, Mama," the child says.

He couldn't stay a child. A blind man on his own had to be an instant grownup — insisting he get paid in singles, say, to avoid being cheated. Charles wouldn't baby himself (except for his heroin habit) or let others kid him. What he says sounds arrogant, but it's a fact: "I walk out alone in the dark and do something no one's done in music and business."

Yes, indeed. For Charles, business meant leaving his nurturing mentors at Atlantic for a cushy deal at another label. It meant firing a friend and keeping his women (and his drugs) away from his wife. Mainly, it meant diversifying his product: from R&B to rock 'n' roll and then to country, Big Band, America the Beautiful — whatever beguiled his ear. Ray Charles Inc. was a multimusical conglomerate.

Ray indulges in music-bio cliches ("Ahmet, we gotta get that on wax!") and familiar, if potent, cold-turkey histrionics. But it paints vividly on a broad canvas, with attention to local color and the telling detail. The cast is terrific from top to bottom — Kerry Washington as Charles' wife; Regina King and Aunjanue Ellis as his singer-concubines; Sharron Warren as his tough-love mama; Clifton Powell as his friend and roadie; Bokeem Woodbine as sexy sax man David (Fathead) Newman. If there were an Oscar for ensemble acting, Ray would win in a stroll.

And Foxx would lead the parade. His nailing of Charles' mannerisms (the stutter at the start of a sentence, the reflex smile, the hugging gesture that thanks a crowd for its cheers) might echo Foxx's In Living Color days. But this is more than a stunt. He carves a complex character out of what could have been hagiography. Foxx's performance, like the film, is sympathetic but not sentimental. It is as true as the blues to Charles' pain, as ecstatic as rock 'n' roll to his triumph. It sings, and it swings.