Making It Look Easy
By virtue of his synthesizing influence on popular music, Ray Charles led a life worth treating at length. Anchored by Jamie Foxx's soulful performance, this conventional biopic certainly does it justice -- at least up until 1966 when the itinerant pianist and vocalist kicked his heroin habit. He died earlier this year.
Once Charles broke through to a mass audience in 1959, he was criticized for sounding watered-down and too mainstream. Though it's a cinematically accomplished and frequently moving tribute, the same could be said of Ray. The beloved performer's story becomes an emphatically entertaining, toe-tapping cautionary tale about how drug addiction is more crippling than any physical handicap.
It's the kind of message Hollywood is good at transmitting. But you wonder whether the effects dope had on his music-making, both positive and negative, are being glossed over. Getting high was a form of escapism, and it was prevalent, but was it anything more to Charles? Nothing is shown to suggest it seriously impeded his career or enhanced his creativity.
Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter James L. White do establish numerous connections between his blindness and his music. Charles lost his sight as a young boy and the truism about other senses being heightened was never more apt. In one of many heart-tugging flashbacks to his early childhood in North Florida, his single mom -- determined to make Ray learn to fend for himself -- refuses to pick him up after he falls and cries out for help. We then watch along with her as he discovers how sound can acclimate him to the world.
Ray is hagiographic to the extent that we never see him shooting up. During years of dues-paying performances on the Chitlin' Circuit, it's unclear whether he's high or not. We never see a needle enter his arm and the worst thing he does is snap at his wife or mistress. He's caddish and selfish but never cruel. In 1959, Charles made it big when his song "What'd I Say" crossed over onto the Pop charts. The personal turning point and the movie's climax comes around 1965 when he hits bottom and undergoes rehab in silk pajamas.
Foxx will be highly visible Oscar night. In a charismatic, modulated performance he nails Charles's physical mannerisms -- which stemmed from the heroin use as much as his blindness -- along with his self-reliance, ebullience, womanizing ways, and business savvy. He's got it all working, effortlessly it seems.
Aside from some minor lip-synching lapses, the musical virtuosity is well showcased. As a musician, Charles was nothing if not eclectic and versatile. He never struggled to be recognized for his musical ability. His challenge was to embrace his own style, which he did under the tutelage of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. It turned out to be an innovative fusion of R&B and Gospel.
The corollary to the movie's rather chaste emphasis on drug addiction is a larger psychological thesis. Not until he forgives himself for his little brother's death will he be free -- free of drugs and free to be Ray. The hitch is that he did find his musical voice while still using. He was reluctant to experiment artistically because he felt he had to play it safe to earn a living. Ironically, the lesson learned from his mother about self-sufficiency and not expecting special treatment or pity, held him back musically.
By ending in 1966 (except for a 1970s' coda) Ray might be implying that once he found his voice and got off dope, he was musically dormant. Yet we learn that what detractors took to be a middle-of-the road sell-out, his rendition of "Georgia," Charles considered central to his art. A common feature of the movie, Foxx's performance, and the man being celebrated is that they make it seem easier than it was. They aren't really playing it safe, it just looks that way.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements.)