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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Unflinching portrait of the Genius of Soul
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Ray 4 stars (out of five)
Dir: Taylor Hackford
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King

Biopics often fall into the trap of hagiography, trying to present their subject in the best possible light. Not so with Ray, director Taylor Hackford's warts-and-all (or nearly so) depiction of Ray Charles.

Charles' story is an inspirational one: He overcame poverty, blindness and racial prejudice to become an American institution and one of the most beloved and groundbreaking figures in modern music.

At the same time, he was a selfish, egotistical, unrepentant womanizing junkie who sometimes neglected his family and was often disloyal to his friends. But they didn't call him "The Genius" for nothing.

The opening scene of Ray tells us all we need to know about the man. It is 1948 and a young blind black man stands alone at a rural Florida bus stop. When the white driver finds out the young man's destination is Seattle, he states in no uncertain terms that the man isn't coming aboard because he doesn't have time to babysit some "crippled colored boy." Charles meekly mentions having "left my eyes at Omaha Beach," and the driver relents. The young man's confident, knowing smile as he boards the bus tells us the story is a scam, but the incident demonstrates Charles' creativity, independence and talent for giving people what they wanted to hear, whether they knew what they wanted or not.

Musically, Charles fused the gospel of his childhood with the rhythm and blues he played working his way up through the "chitlin circuit" of the South. The results both scandalized and enticed churchgoers across the country. Melding the sacred with the sensual gave Brother Ray a sound that could make a preacher kick a hole in a stained-glass window and revolutionized popular music.

Naturally, music plays a huge role in the film, setting the mood and driving the narrative. In one scene, when his backup singers storm out of the studio after an argument, we watch as Charles records all the harmony background vocals on "I Believe to My Soul" with the help of an awestruck sound engineer.

The Genius, who died last year, rerecorded some of his most famous songs for the film, and I'd have happily paid to sit in a dark room and listen to the soundtrack. The fact that there is a nearly great movie attached to it--just nominated for the best picture Oscar--is just gravy.

It takes a genius to play a genius, and Jamie Foxx had better start clearing a spot on his mantle for the richly deserved Oscar for which he is now officially in the running. Foxx doesn't just play Brother Ray, he channels the man's every twitch, grin, sway and cackle, brilliantly capturing the man's exuberance and considerable charm while hinting at the darker side simmering beneath the surface.

Foxx is backed by a terrific supporting cast. Kerry Washington shines as Charles' wife Della Bea, as does Regina King in the role of Margie Hendricks, the Raelette who "let Ray" and became one of his many mistresses.

Character actor Curtis Armstrong puts in a scene-stealing turn as Atlantic Records' nerdy Ahmet Ertegun, nervously performing a song he has written, "Mess Around," which became one of Charles' early hits.

Sharon Warren gives a powerful, layered performance in her film debut as a fierce but loving mother in heartwrenching flashbacks to Ray Charles Robinson's dirt-poor childhood in the Georgia backwoods. At age 5, he watches, rooted to the spot, as his younger brother drowns in a washtub. A few months later his eyesight begins to fade. The condition is treatable, but there is no money for doctors. By age 7, he is blind.

Some of the most emotional scenes show Warren's character suffering silently as she tries to instill some independence in her son, forcing him to navigate their cramped cabin unaided. "You're blind, not dumb; you lost your sight, not your mind," she says, before sending him off to a school for the blind 240 kilometers from home before his 10th birthday.

Her death at 31 while Charles was away at school forces him to fend for himself and helps him become a savvy, occasionally ruthless businessman.

Haunted by his brother's death and the loneliness of life on the road, Charles numbs himself with heroin and spends hours alone at the piano while his bandmates are out carousing. His long-running addiction finally catches up with him in 1965, when he is arrested for possession and narrowly avoids jail by entering rehab.

Hackford's direction and James L. White's script are occasionally wooden, and some factual liberties have been taken. A 1979 scene of Ray accepting an apology from the Georgia State Legislature for barring him from performing after he refused to abide by Jim Crow laws shows him with Della Bea at his side, though the two actually divorced in 1977. Charles' brief first marriage to Eileen Williams, who bore him a child, is not mentioned, nor are some of his illegitimate children.

Other things the film doesn't tell us--that after kicking heroin, Charles continued smoking marijuana and drinking copious amounts of gin and very rarely composed new music--reflect the prevailing puritan attitude toward drugs, and Hollywood's own addiction to happy endings.

These minor problems take little away from what's on the screen, and any clunkiness is overcome by the strength of the performances and the music. Foxx's career-making performance alone is worth twice the price of admission.

The movie opens (in Japan) Jan. 29.
Copyright 2005 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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