Charles Not In Charge

Oh brother, Ray: Jamie Foxx in 'Ray'
Universal Pictures

"I think everyone can see that I'm black," Ray Charles told Playboy during the Black Power era, "so I guess I don't have to tell anybody about it. Furthermore, I'd like to think that when I sing a song, I can let you know all about the heartbreak, struggles, lies, and kicks in the ass I've gotten over the years for being black and everything else, without actually saying a word about it."

Charles's often transcendent music could indeed convey all of that and a lot of good times, too. He certainly wasn't lacking in "kicks in the ass" to draw from. At age five, he watched his brother (his only sibling) drown in a washtub. At age six, he was beset by glaucoma and was completely blind by seven. His dad was an absentee; his mother died when he was 15. By 16, the orphaned pianist-singer was already a professional club musician and becoming a professional junkie. He continued using until 1965, when he entered rehab under legal pressure. The fact that he made most of his greatest music while drugging heavily is something your kids and Nancy Reagan shouldn't concern themselves with.

Obviously Taylor Hackford's Ray has a lot of pathos and triumph to work with, and the advance hype is predictably filled with Oscar buzz. I understand that cinematic releases, due to some silly technicality, aren't eligible for Emmy awards, which this occasionally fun, often risibly corny movie would be more deserving of (which is only to say that Oscars are somewhat more related to merit). I'll also concede that child actor C.J. Sanders, who plays young Ray in flashback scenes, deserves whatever award they can cough up for him. The kid, as they say, is a natural, and he and Sharon Warren (gripping as Ray's mom) turn what ought to be manipulative schlock into rich, cathartic drama.

But of course it's Jamie Foxx who seems like a lock for a Best Actor nomination. That would also be too kind. Foxx can be subtle and funny here, but his performance often feels like a rather hollow if impressive feat of mimicry. At times, in fact, he appears to have inserted a vaguely comic impersonation into an allegedly serious movie--something like having a toned-down Rich Little star in Oliver Stone's Nixon.

Granted, this is no easy role. Charles's promotional epithet was "the genius," which he was, and that's a quality difficult for talented nongeniuses to capture. Also, Charles--an unrepentant philanderer, a notoriously stingy bandleader, a frequent backstabber--had a lot of the selfish jerk in him, and it's hard to get audiences to care about selfish jerks, even famous, brilliant ones.

Foxx, however, is quite convincing as a musician, which makes sense since he is one. A good pianist (some scenes feature his own playing) and singer (check out his lead vocals on Kanye West's great hit from earlier this year, "Slow Jamz"), Foxx manages to suggest Charles's passion for music and conjure his spirit even when he's just lip-synching (to old records or new performances made by Charles not long before his death; since Charles sung like a middle-aged man even when he was barely into his 20s, the anachronistic performances work reasonably well).

Foxx's authentic musicality is complemented by a music lover's script (written by Hackford and James L. White), full of knowing references (Nat "King" Cole, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulsom, and Art Tatum are portrayed or acknowledged, for example). But while Ray does right by its subject's music, it doesn't always get the music-making process right--or it gets things technically right but essentially wrong. As the film depicts, Ray's pop breakthrough "What'd I Say" was first performed as an ad-libbed, show-closing jam on a riff and call-and-response idea floating around the bandleader's head. Charles's late-'50s band was one of the best ever assembled. If any ensemble could make a jam sound rehearsed, it was them. Still, the film's version of that inaugural performance is altogether too perfect. The thespian musicians' "tentativeness" just makes things phonier.

In another scene, Ray is trying to work out a new tune on his electric piano and asks Raelett Margie Hendrix (Regina King), his "on-the-road wife" and one of his many chicks on the side, to give him a hand. Instead she tells him she's pregnant with his child ("I'll pay for the abortion," offers the typically callous genius) and finally works up the nerve to dump him. At this point, the muse apparently strikes Ray with "Hit the Road Jack," a fun-more-than-heartfelt favorite (written by Percy Mayfield, by the way) that would be ludicrously timed even in a musical comedy--especially when Hendrix decides to take part in the duet through angry tears. (Another, more nitpicky quibble: Ray steals propers from trumpeter Renald Richard, who wrote the lyrics to "I Got a Woman" and helped Charles hatch the idea of applying overtly sexual lyrics to old gospel tunes; Renald Richard fans unite!)

Most of the time, though, Ray shoots pretty straight with the facts, and, mainly through clunky exposition, it puts Charles's tireless efforts to control all aspects of his music-making in a civil-rights context. Stylistically protean and preternaturally versatile (arranger, player, singer, writer, bandleader, etc.), Charles determined his own sound more than any pop artist of his era, including Frank Sinatra, another famous taskmaster and one of the few singers to rival Charles for seemingly effortless emotive power. By the time Charles moved from hip Atlantic to glitzy ABC-Paramount, he even negotiated to own his master tapes, which was (and nearly remains) unheard-of. When Charles added strings and drippy choral backing to country tunes or pop ballads, no one was pressuring him to make things palatable for white listeners; he was doing it all by himself. The crossover stuff was sometimes brilliant, sometimes disappointing, but either way it vastly changed American music and culture.

So if Ray earns more respect for an artistic giant...well, worse things could happen. The movie should be commended for showing its subject as both heel and hero. Unfortunately, a solid, balanced book report is not the same as a good film. Ray dutifully flies through as many colorful anecdotes and musical epiphanies as it can cram into two and a half hours. Rarely, at least when there's no music playing and young Sanders isn't onscreen, does it dig beneath the surface. At his best, Charles dug beneath the surface like he was on a holy mission to exhume dead souls.

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