ARTS

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November 9, 2004

Foxx leaves Booty Call days behind him with Ray

What's most exciting about Ray, the new Ray Charles bio-pic directed by Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman)—besides the sweet-tasting musical antics of a "genius who loves company" (to name-drop the new CD by Ray Charles)—is Jamie Foxx's eclectic physical and emotional portrayal of the late legend. It has been said in almost every popular review that Foxx's performance is so amazing that the spectator forgets he is not the actual Charles. He is engaging and stylish as he floats effortlessly through the years of Charles's life.

The film, which took almost 18 years to complete, is a 2-hour, 33-minute musical and emotional treat. It covers all the bases: the highs (Charles's concerts and chart successes), the lows (drug addiction, adultery) and everything in between. From his birth in 1930 to the halcyon days of the '60s, the film spans the peak years of Charles's popularity and chart-topping success. It even includes a scene from as late as 1979, involving a public apology by the state of Georgia for preventing Charles from performing in the state. For all of the success of Charles's hit, "Georgia on My Mind"—which became Georgia's state song—this seems like a reasonable gesture.

The film opens with one of the most entertainingly aesthetic cinematographic sequences I have ever encountered in film. With Foxx effortlessly playing the piano, there are close-up shots of parts of his face and the swirls of smoke from a cigarette (almost another character in the cast for all of its recurring points in the film). The final image before the title is of Foxx's hands on the piano keys, with the camera zooming out to reveal the image reflected in Charles's glasses. From that point on, the audience knows that they are in for one hell of a ride!

The story accredits Charles's blindness at age seven to the drowning death of his younger brother when he was five. Whether or not that is true is not the film's focus. We learn the truth in the end in a dreamy scene that is both painful and a bit out of character for the film. It is a scene that does not seem to fit with the story, but at the same time is necessary for Charles to fully live his life. Another scene that is both surreal and innovative in content comes when Charles is giving up his addiction to drugs cold turkey in a rehab center. It is a hallucinatory sequence that is haunting but also doesn't seem appropriate for a biography. However, it works to understand Charles's nature at that period of his life.

I was impressed at how the film paced itself, as well as how it handled all aspects of Charles's life, from his addiction to his success on the charts. The best scenes were those with Foxx emphatically playing the piano over the actual voice of Ray Charles crooning his famous favorites. Also notable: The scenes that were, I suspect, fictionalized (but no less entertaining for that) involving the creation of some of Charles's biggest hits out of ordinary interactions. For instance, the well-loved tune "Hit the Road Jack" is inspired by a heated battle between Charles and his mistress/back-up singer Maggie Hendricks (played forcefully and wittily by the underappreciated Regina King) when Charles tells her that she will need to have an abortion. The musical exchange between the two is a highlight of the film that is both amusing and a depressing foreshadowing of future events.

At times, the film slowed down a bit, but it always kept my attention. If there were flaws, they did not interrupt my perception of any part of the film, keeping me enthralled in the visual language of the film and its dialogue.

On top of the visual aestheticism, there was not a disappointing performance in the film. Kerry Washington (as Della Bea Robinson) is strong and sensitive as Charles's wife, who, despite his adultery and drug addiction, stands by her man. "What about her baby?" she says when Charles receives some bad news about his mistress. "You knew?" he says. Her silence exudes her answer.

Aunjanue Ellis as Mary Ann Fisher—Charles's first mistress and back-up singer—is great, using her sexuality for business. Other performances by Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lennox, Bokeem Woodbine, Larenz Tate, David Krumholtz, Richard Schiff, and Curtis Armstrong help to complete an amazingly well rounded cast.

But it was Foxx as Ray Charles that drove the film through to its appropriate end. Wearing eye prosthetics through the entire film, Foxx moves with great confidence in his performance, concentrating on each of Charles's signature physical attributes—most notably, hugging himself after a great performance and donning that million-dollar smile—to near perfection. He is considered a frontrunner for an Oscar for Best Oscar, and rightfully so. It is a breakout role that is surprising, heartbreaking, and amusing all at the same time.

With an engaging leading man, smooth cinematography, toe-tapping musical numbers, and an amazing yet understated, cast Ray is a treat that is at once the story of an ordinary man and the story of a legendary genius. I felt unworthy.