- Ray (2004) movie review: Taylor Hackford’s $40 million biopic of iconic American singer Ray Charles takes the tried-and-true, crowd-pleasing route while Jamie Foxx, as the title character, does a good mimicking job but little else.
- Ray won two Academy Awards: Best Actor (Jamie Foxx) and Best Sound Mixing. It was nominated in four other categories, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Ray movie review: By-the-book biopic features showy central performance + crowd-pleasing narrative arc
Taylor Hackford’s commercially and critically successful Ray Charles biopic Ray offers no more than a superficial look at the life and career of the iconic American singer and composer. That’s no accident.
After all, the generously budgeted Universal release may show Charles’ stand against racism, (some of) his many women, and descent into drug abuse, while ever so reticently steering clear of any disturbing elements in the artist’s psyche – apparently fearing that his inner demons, if let loose on screen, would have frightened, repelled, and/or angered potential patrons.
And why not?
Once you’ve spent $40 million producing a film and another $20 million or so marketing and distributing it, you need to lure as many ticket-buyers as Hollywoodly possible.
Audience-tested pop psychology
Thus, like what’s resorted to in another (and much costlier) 2004 release, Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, director-writer Hackford and co-screenwriter James L. White make use of pop psychology to explain – or rather, justify – Ray Charles’ less-than-spotless life as an adult: He was consumed by guilt for the death of his brother, who drowned in a washbasin when they were little children.
Just as importantly, like countless other mainstream Hollywood biopics about show business personalities, from With a Song in My Heart (Jane Froman) and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (Lillian Roth) to Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn) and Chaplin (Charles Chaplin) – and even those about individuals in other fields, e.g., Ron Howard’s Best Picture Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind (mathematician John Nash) – Hackford and White’s movie simply must give audiences a triumph-over-adversity grand finale.
Else, this project first planned in 1987 would still be waiting for funds and/or a distributor.
Jamie Foxx, for his part, does a remarkable impersonation of Ray Charles, perfectly mimicking everything about the blind singer, from his peculiar speech to his unusual walk.
Yet Foxx’s performance fails to register as a work of depth. For that reason, his mannerisms and speech patterns come across as little more than the result of good physical control and lots of training.
Not for a second while watching Foxx as Charles did this reviewer forget that what was being displayed on screen was an actor pretending to be somebody else.
First-rate Regina King
Considering the showiness of his work and the amount of screen time devoted to him, it’s hardly surprising that Jamie Foxx has been the highlight of numerous Ray movie reviews. This early in the game, he’s already the man to beat in the Best Actor category at next year’s Academy Awards.
And yet … the performer who delivers the film’s most effective characterization is Regina King, cast as Margie Hendricks, a Raelettes member and one of Charles’ women.
Whenever it’s her turn, King provides the little genuine drama there is in Ray’s otherwise by-the-book proceedings.
Unvarnished reality must be avoided
Ultimately, Ray is just your standard showbiz movie biopic, the likes of which Hollywood has been churning out since time immemorial. If that type of narrative and Ray Charles’ music are good enough for you, then you probably shouldn’t miss the latest effort by the director of The Idolmaker and An Officer and a Gentleman.
In view of the film’s respectable success with the public and its hearty reception among mainstream U.S. critics, the filmmakers obviously made the right artistic decisions, as Ray’s modest goals have been more than enough for a large segment of moviegoers and reviewers alike.
And why not?
After all, no complex, unvarnished look into the life of an artist, especially one who happens to be a cultural icon, would have been that warmly embraced.
Director: Taylor Hackford.
Screenplay: James L. White.
From an original story by White & Taylor Hackford.
“Ray Movie (2004) Review” endnotes
An awards season favorite in the U.S. and the U.K., Jamie Foxx was named Best Actor by, among others: The British Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globes (Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical), the London Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics (also for Collateral).
Jamie Foxx Ray movie image: Universal Pictures.
“Ray Movie (2004) Review: Prosaic Ray Charles Biopic” last updated in September 2021.