In the wake of Ashlee Simpson’s lip synching fiasco, it seems somewhat ironic to willingly sit in a theater for several hours to watch Jamie Foxx do the same. But then of course what better way to bring the world of Ray Charles to life than by filling the film with his actual music, rather than having Foxx attempt some sort of vocal parody of the songs Charles has already done. The music in Ray isn’t Foxx’s, but the performance is. Ray suffers from a few of the same pitfalls all biopics do, but succeeds on the eerily accurate work of Jamie Foxx.
At the end of the film there are a few nice black and white photos of the real Ray Charles Robinson, around the same age he’s supposed to be when played by Foxx in the film. It’s astounding how much Jamie actually looks like him. He isn’t just mimicking him, he’s somehow managed to become him, capturing the essence of the man, his spirit, his soul and then channeling that into a performance that not only captures his vocal inflections and body movements, but the tiniest of facial features as well.
The film itself plays as a basic biopic, telling the story of Ray’s first few years as a musician and rise to stardom. Interspersed with that are flashbacks to Ray’s childhood, in which one of the last things he sees before going blind is his brother drowning in a washtub. Ray is a brutally honest film that leaves absolutely none of the dark side of Ray’s life out. Front and center is his addiction to drugs, heroin seems to be the driving force behind just about every conflict and heartache in Ray’s life. Once Ray finally gets off the sauce, the movie ends, as if to say it was all smooth sailing from there. The movie also doesn’t shy away from Ray’s dalliances, and develops his wife as a long suffering woman, aware of his misdeeds but, to a point content to put up with them as long as he doesn’t bring them into her house.
Ray avoids some of the typical biopic failures by covering only a confined period in Ray’s life, rather than try to squeeze fifty years or so into one picture. Still, at times some of the scenes feel a little disjointed and out of place, the flashbacks break it up perhaps a little more than necessary, making it less of a linear and developmental narrative and thus somewhat less emotionally resonant than it might have been. Like any biopic, the film also feels a bit dry at times. But reality is rarely as interesting as fantasy, unless you already have some obsession with the subject of the film. Ray’s story is a compelling one, but after awhile it feels a little too familiar. Musician makes it big, musician does drugs and bangs women… we’ve seen that before even if this puts it in a slightly different context.
The real driving force of the film though is the music of Ray Charles and the flat out greatness of watching Jamie Foxx play Ray in the middle of a performance. The lip synching is admittedly not always perfect, and in fact sometimes it is flat out obvious. But watching Ray go through the creative process to become a massive musical innovator is absolutely fascinating. Whenever Ray isn’t on stage or in the studio creating, some of the dramatic sequences become a bit interminable, not necessarily because they themselves are necessarily bad, but because the musically creative sequences are so good I was hungry to get more of them.
Ray is a genial affair mostly interesting as an unbiased history of a man most people my age only remember as a shriveled old prune. It shows him for what he really was: A genius, an innovator, and an absolutely flawed human being. Ray Charles created nearly as many obstacles for himself as those he had to naturally overcome. In the end he beat them all to become something completely original. There will be a lot of talk of Oscars for Jamie Foxx in a few months. Maybe he deserves a look, though I think I almost prefer the subtlety of his performance earlier this year in Collateral. His work here to me is about on par with the overlooked acting Jim Carrey did in Man on the Moon, as a creative figure who in the end failed to conquer his personal demons. Hopefully, Foxx’s portrayal will get more serious consideration.