Long after the movie's over, 'Ray' will be on your mind
If ever there was a pop-music biopic crying to be made, that movie is "Ray," about Ray Charles, the legendary singer, pianist, and songwriter who died in June. Small wonder it's directed by Taylor Hackford, a pop-savvy filmmaker whose credits include producing "La Bamba," the entertaining 1987 picture about Ritchie Valens, and directing "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the marvelous Chuck Berry documentary of the same year.
"Ray" is Mr. Hackford's magnum opus to date, and stands with the better fictionalized biographies of popular music stars. It's conventional in approach and sometimes sentimental, even corny, in its content. But there were so many fascinating overtones in Mr. Charles's life and career that any account of them is bound to be riveting at least part of the time.
Some of those overtones were sad. Raised in Georgia and Florida during the era of institutionalized Southern racism, Charles was only 5 when he lost a brother in a tragic accident (which he apparently witnessed) and only 7 when he lost his sight. As a young adult he rose quickly in the music world, though, first by imitating stars like Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, then as an original talent who spun danceable songs out of gospel-music ingredients.
His embrace of this "devil music" scandalized his more conservative listeners, as did his addiction to heroin, which almost undermined his career before he kicked the habit in the 1960s. Other aspects of his private life also threatened his success, including his penchant for fathering children out of wedlock.
"Ray" takes a simplified Freudian view of Charles's dark side, suggesting his weaknesses were a result of childhood traumas that he eventually overcame through a combination of will power and psychotherapy. The movie's political level is more carefully worked out than its psychology, showing how Charles defied Georgia tradition by refusing to give a segregated concert there - and how he was vindicated years later when the state publicly apologized and made one of his most magnificent hits, "Georgia on My Mind," its official song.
In a performance already surrounded by Oscar buzz, Jamie Foxx is close to perfect as the title character, balancing mimicry - with help from the makeup department, he looks uncannily like Charles himself - and solid interpretive acting that lets us identify with Charles even as we see his failings and feel his vulnerabilities. With so much justified fuss over Mr. Foxx, one hopes the superb supporting cast doesn't get lost in the publicity shuffle: Kerry Washington as Charles's wife, Regina King as his mistress, Bokeem Woodbine as sideman "Fathead" Newman, and Curtis Armstrong as legendary Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegun, among others.
Running more than 2-1/2 hours, "Ray" is longer than it needs to be. But it's good that Hackford and company have allowed themselves to touch so many bases in Charles's biography. Like the "Georgia" he crooned about, "Ray" will be on many people's minds in months to come.
• Rated PG-13; contains sex and drug use.