The music biopic is a funny old film genre. Those that are based on recent events seem especially hamstrung by their depiction of people still living, and the self-conscious way they portray key moments in an artist’s life and career can often come over as a bit clunky to say the least. Anyone who has managed to sit through the whole of Oliver Stone’s The Doors will know exactly what I mean. Ray has the advantage over many such films, in that the late Ray Charles collaborated on the picture almost until his death in 2004, lending advice, seemingly well-heeded, to its star Jamie Foxx.
Taylor Hackford’s career as a film director has been a mixed one – he proved he could put bums on seats with An Officer and a Gentleman, tackled the thriller in Proof of Life, and made us laugh unintentionally with The Devil’s Advocate. Importantly though, he has previous when it comes to making films about musicians, having shot the Chuck Berry concert documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll, and Hackford clearly has an instinct for it that carries Ray along purely by its wonderful – and frequent – musical interludes.
The Ray Charles story in short: small boy in poor black Southern family goes blind from glaucoma aged seven, but not before the agony of seeing his brother die in a tub of boiling water; brought up singing in a Baptist choir, he learns piano and as a teenager, takes a bus to Seattle for work, surviving on his wits – and obvious talent – alone; from rhythm and blues wannabe, he quickly develops a style blending soul and gospel, and becomes an international star.
By the mid-60s, where the movie breaks off, Charles is just kicking a lengthy heroin addiction; he’s moved from Atlantic, the independent label that has nurtured him through his career, and signed a lucrative deal with major ABC Paramount; and in a move virtually unheard of at the time, has also secured ownership of his own recordings.
Jamie Foxx, a musician and a stand-up comedian prior to his acting breakthrough, has Ray Charles down pat. Every movement, and every inflection in the singer’s speaking voice has been scrutinised and pinned down. Some critics have accused him of merely mimicking – an absurd criticism to level at a performance so sensitive and with such attention to detail.
Wisely, the director uses original Ray Charles recordings on the soundtrack, and these, from the early Mess Around, memorably seen taught to Charles by Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong), through to the classic What’d I Say – shown as an improvised jam knocked up to fulfil a concert contract – are electrifying, and wholly believable in the cast’s execution.
Ray uses flashbacks to illustrate the harrowing loss of the young boy’s sight, and the years of recurring nightmares caused by his brother’s death. It shows Ray Charles the musical genius whose belated but pronounced conversion to the 1960s civil rights struggle was only as astonishing as his recording of an enormously successful country and western album. It also gives us Ray the junkie, Ray the serial womaniser, and Ray the ruthless businessman, and doesn’t gloss over these facts either. The supporting cast are also excellent, most notably Kerry Washington and Regina King as the two most important women in his life, on and off the road.
The music biopic may not have served everyone well – Jim Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis and all – but Ray isn’t afraid to show the grimy side, and everyone involved comes out of it with credit.