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Ray (A Movie Review)

RAY (2004)

Starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis, Sharon Warren, C.J. Sanders, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, David Krumholtz and Wendell Pierce.

Screenplay by James L. White.

Directed by Taylor Hackford.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 152 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Ray Charles is a musical icon, but at this point most people don't really know much about his background. Too many younger people just see the later sell-outs; the Pepsi and lottery commercials, the songs with Billy Joel, Norah Jones and InXS. Those were all fine, funky, and well-done for what they were, but still it was a legend coasting on his reputation. That wasn't the real Brother Ray.

The movie of his life should change all that. In a year where celebrity biography movies were all the rage (Beyond the Sea, Kinsey, De-Lovely, Finding Neverland, The Aviator and more) this is arguably the best of them all.

It helps that Ray Charles Robinson lived such a dramatic life. It was a life as full of heartbreak as it was of success, as full of demons as it was of brilliance. Born to a poor single washwoman in the deep south, Ray witnessed his brother's accidental drowning at seven and never forgave himself for not saving the boy. Ray lost his sight less than a year later. His mother Aretha (Sharon Warren) was a proud, strong woman who took a tough-love tact when teaching her son to deal with his blindness. She was determined that he never allow himself to be a cripple.

Soon after his mother's death, when Ray was in his twenties, he left his home to go to Seattle to find a career in music. He took any gig he could get, as the only black player for a country band (Charles was famously a fan of country music, a fact that he would celebrate in his classic 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western) or as the underpaid leader of a Seattle bar band (it turned out his job description included sleeping with the woman who owned the club.) He was an astounding singer and songwriter, but in those early years he was mostly a mimic. He sounded eerily like Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, but he had not yet found his own voice.

Still, his raw talent shone through, and he was signed to a tiny label called Swing Time signed him up as a recording act. This caught the ears of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, the heads of Atlantic Records. With the strength that he learned from his mother, Charles is able to sign a historic contract in terms of money and artists' rights.

Together with his band and the producers, Charles helped to create a new form of soul music, a meld of his Gospel roots and his earthlier desires. The music catches on and Charles keeps working on his craft to make it more and more personal (the soundtrack alone makes this movie worth watching). Charles toured the Chitlin' Circuit tirelessly, becoming one of the first soul artists to run his own record company. He also becomes a civil rights icon when he refused to play a segregated show in Georgia.

In all fairness, Sam Cooke broke down many of those same doors at the same time. Charles wasn't the only artist who merged gospel with popular music. He wasn't the only African American artist running his own business and refusing to perform segregated shows down South, as the film intimates. But the fact that there were others, like Cooke treading the same road does not diminish Charles' accomplishments and bravery.

Ray is also impressive in the fact that it recognizes and explores Ray's imperfections, his womanizing, his occasional callousness, his mistrust of others and the drug addictions that dogged him through many of his glory years.

Ray Charles was a complicated person, and his innate contradictions are captured in a spectacular performance by Jamie Foxx. Foxx captures the physical movements and voice of the man, but the performance is not a mere impersonation, it is also an acting job of the highest caliber. Watching Ray, you forget that you are that this is a dramatization, it seems almost more like a documentary. (10/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: October 28, 2004.

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