Taylor Hackford’s prosaic biopic Ray offers no more than a superficial look at the life and career of legendary singer and composer Ray Charles. I say “superficial” in that Ray may show Charles’ stand against racism, in addition to his many women and drug abuse, but director-writer Hackford, co-screenwriter James L. White, and star Jamie Foxx ever so politely steer clear of Charles’ psyche, obviously fearing his inner demons – if really let loose on screen – would have frightened, repelled, and/or angered potential patrons.
Thus, like Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator that same year, Hackford and White make use of pop psychology to explain – or rather, justify – Charles’ less-than-spotless life as an adult: he felt guilty for the death of his brother, who drowned in a wash basin when they were both little children. Just as importantly, like numerous other biopics, from With a Song in My Heart and I’ll Cry Tomorrow to Coal Miner’s Daughter and Walk the Line, Ray simply must give audiences a triumph-over-adversity grand finale. Else, this Hackford project acquired in 1987 would still be waiting for either funds and/or a distributor.
Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, for his part, does a remarkable impersonation of Ray Charles, perfectly mimicking everything from the blind singer’s peculiar speech to his unusual walk. Yet, Foxx’s performance fails to register as a work of real depth; his Ray Charles-like mannerisms and speech patterns come across as little more than the result of good physical control and lots of rehearsals. Not for a second while watching Jamie Foxx mimicking Ray Charles did I forget I was watching an actor mimicking Ray Charles.
In my view, Ray‘s acting honors should have gone to Regina King as Raelettes member Margie Hendricks and one of Charles’ on-screen women. Whenever she’s on screen, King provides the little genuine drama there is in the otherwise by-the-book proceedings.
Ultimately, Ray is nothing more than your standard show-biz biopic, the likes of which Hollywood has been churning out since time immemorial. If that type of narrative and Ray Charles’ music are enough for you, then you probably shouldn’t miss it.
Considering the film’s respectable success with the public and its warm reception among mainstream US critics, Ray‘s modest goals were clearly more than enough for a large segment of the moviegoing public – and that’s understandable. No complex, unvarnished look into the life of an artist, especially one who happens to be a cultural icon, would have been that welcome.
RAY (2004). Dir.: Taylor Hackford. Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Sharon Warren, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard. Scr.: James L. White; from an original story by White and Taylor Hackford.