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The Genius, Almost Live

When Ray Charles died back in June, I e-mailed a friend and music critic with the gloomy news. The gist of my message went something like, “Ray Charles? I know he was getting on in years, but . . . why? He was only 73. Damn it if I don’t hate real life sometimes.” My friend responded by saying that he had never cared much for Ray Charles’ music.

What’d he say? Never cared much for his music? Not wanting to start a pointless argument about musical taste, I e-mailed back, “Just listen to ‘Chitlins With Candied Yams.’” This time he didn’t respond, and I doubt he ever checked out the tune. Which is his loss.

But then, as I found myself talking with others about Charles, I realized that a big part of why so many young music aficionados hadn’t responded to Charles had a lot to do with the era in which we grew up. We watched him sing “America the Beautiful,” lovingly, to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The Diet Pepsi ads (“You’ve got the right one, bay-bay!”) didn’t help much either. This “beloved” figure was trotted out so often (and often so incongruously) that many people just glazed over with the “Say uncle” attitude of “Okay, we get it! He’s a legend.”

Now we get a glimpse (a word that should be underscored five times) of the man behind the icon, in Taylor Hackford’s venture Ray, a biopic that skims through the musician’s life with varying degrees of success. A long-standing project for Hackford — Charles himself served as technical adviser — Ray undoubtedly means a lot to him. Clearly, the director loves his subject, and, as evidenced in his other smooth, by-the-numbers music films (The Idolmaker, the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll and the Hackford-produced La Bamba), he loves music. But for too many minutes of its two and a half hours, Ray flips through its cinematic pages with a breathless and-then-this-happened urgency, offering up little in the way of personality (or truth) beyond Jamie Foxx’s strong performance in the title role and the brilliant music that spikes the celluloid.

The narrative progresses for the most part chronologically, beginning in 1948 when 17-year-old piano player Ray Charles Robinson (he dropped the Robinson after “Sugar” Ray took the welterweight title) stepped off the Florida Chitlin’ Circuit and journeyed to Seattle, where he helped start a Nat “King” Cole sound-alike trio (and met a lifelong friend, Quincy Jones). Hackford and screenwriter James L. White follow the path of his increasing popularity: his life on the road and his longtime heroin addiction; his troubled marriage to Della Bea (Kerry Washington); his many affairs, chiefly with backup singer Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and her replacement, gravel-voiced shouter Marjorie Hendricks (the fantastic Regina King); and, in the film’s liveliest sequences, his performance and recording of the new “soul” music. When the movie depicts Charles inventing a controversial blend of gospel and blues, developing a new vocal style, and signing on to Atlantic Records with mentors Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), Ray is a kick to watch.

The scenes of this blind country boy, who early on had to insist on being paid in singles so as not to be cheated by club owners and bandleaders, becoming a shrewd protector of his own business interests are also compelling. When Charles manages to negotiate the sweet deal at ABC-Paramount whereby he was the first recording artist to own his own masters, he doesn’t hesitate to leave his friends and co-creators at Atlantic behind. It’s cold-blooded, but understandable after so many years of dealing with the sort of people who wouldn’t hesitate to shortchange a blind man.

Or maybe Charles’ determination to micromanage his destiny went deeper than that. Of his upbringing in rural Georgia, Charles once said, “Even compared to other blacks . . . we were on the bottom of the ladder looking up at everyone else. Nothing below us except the ground.” Amid dire poverty — rendered dreamlike here in supersaturated colors — Charles’ strong-minded mother, Aretha (Sharon Warren), pushed hard and then harder still for her son, who lost his sight to glaucoma at 7 years old, to become a person of incredible self-reliance. (Charles never used a cane or a guide dog.) In one disarming scene, she watches in tears as the recently blinded Ray, struggling to orient himself to his surroundings, falls to the floor of their one-room shanty. At the same time, she never lifts a finger to help him.

Other forays into the past don’t work as well as this one. Hackford uses the death by drowning of Charles’ younger brother to explain the musician’s susceptibility to narcotics. Fair

enough (though Charles usually discussed his past heroin use as something he started because, well, it felt good), but to illustrate Charles’ emotions around this incident as a series of horror-movie hallucinations? The impression is less of an artist haunted by survivor’s guilt than of a certifiable schizophrenic.

Jamie Foxx, meanwhile, with his perfected impersonation of Charles — right down to the staggered speaking manner and the body that rocks even when the band isn’t playing — provides the film with most of its joy and depth. He captures both the torment and the sex appeal of a guy who loved countless women and a good laugh, a man who refrained from discussing his problems as a matter of principle and instead bled through his music. Lip-synching to Charles’ recordings, the actor-chameleon masterfully re-creates Charles’ performances, including one that marked a zenith not only in Charles’ career, but in the annals of popular music. In a moment that seems like a movie fantasy but isn’t, The Genius (as he was justly promoted by Atlantic), having run out of material at a gig, begins messing with a bass riff on his electric piano while instructing the band and his backup singers, the Raylettes, to follow along. The result? “What’d I Say,” the song that turned the call and response of “Unnnh! Unnnh! Oh! Oh!” into a monster crossover hit.

 

At this moment, I swooned and fell in love with Ray. But only at this moment. Unfortunately, nothing else in the picture matches its impact. More inventive directors than Hackford — Tim Burton, say, with Ed Wood, or Martin Scorsese, with Raging Bull — understand that a biopic shouldn’t feel like a biopic, and that the best of them carry a passion and vision that resonate beyond their nominal subject. Ray is indeed inspirational (how can such a life not be?), but it only occasionally moves beyond uplift and easy sentimentality.

Then again, as Charles once told a reporter, “I’m the kind of guy, I conform when it suits me, and when it doesn’t suit me I don’t.” So provocative and magnetic was Charles, so private yet revealing, so smooth yet rough-edged, so ready to laugh during an interview or cry onstage in classics like “Drown in My Own Tears,” that, even in more gifted hands, Ray the movie could never have measured up to the man himself.

RAY | Directed by TAYLOR HACKFORD | Story by HACKFORD and JAMES L. WHITE; screenplay by WHITE | Produced by HOWARD BALDWIN, KAREN ELISE BALDWIN, STUART BENJAMIN and HACKFORD | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide

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