Ray directed by Taylor Hackford, written by James L. White and Hackford, produced by Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin, Stuart Benjamin and Hackford, with Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King and Bokeem Woodbine. 152 minutes. A Universal Pictures release. Opens Friday (October 29). For venues and times, see Movies, page 120. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
At this point, no one really needs to explain the genius of Ray Charles. I'm watching the morning news from KTLA, which is playing Charles's song as out music before it cuts to commercials. Snippets of I Got A Woman and Unchain My Heart rip through the happy chat like an emanation from a distant and superior dimension.
Explaining Charles's inordinately complex life, however, may be too big a job for the movies. If you've read his astonishing autobiography, Brother Ray, co-written with Dennis Ritz, avoid this biopic, which trims ruthlessly, simplifies characters and gets all mealy-mouthed around certain issues. The film clearly implies that once Charles kicked heroin he lived clean. In fact, he just switched to gin and drank heavily, which he felt was really nobody's business but his own.
You'd never know from the film that David "Fathead" Newman, played by Bokeem Woodbine, was Charles's most important musical collaborator during the key recording years in the 50s and early 60s, and not just a guy who hung around and got Charles his dope.
Three things make the film worth seeing.
The first is the soundtrack, which is all Ray Charles all the time, and that's as good as it gets, especially in theatre sound.
The second is Jamie Foxx's performance as Charles. A great mimic, Foxx locks himself into Charles's odd, crabbed body language and catches the combination of hustler and genius in his speech. Terrific support comes from Regina King as Margie Hendricks, Charles's mistress and the great dark voice of the Raelettes who provided the opposing female voice on Hit The Road, Jack.
Third, Taylor Hackford, who directed the great Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll, has a real feel for performance. His recreation of the musical milieu that produced Charles, the juke joints and clubs of the segregated age of American culture, is outstanding. Production designer Stephen Altman understands the aesthetic of places that looked rundown and busted three weeks after they were built.
People take films like this as history (not smart people, but a lot of people). Unfortunately, while some of the film does feel authentic, Hackford's gone for the cliché (musical genius/junkie branch) whenever possible.
If you want to understand Ray Charles, start with the music. If you don't have any in your collection, there's a great two-CD collection on Rhino. Then read Brother Ray. And only then see the movie, when you can appreciate the music and performances and ignore the relentless simplification of an extremely complicated life.