Jamie Foxx is a revelation in the title role of “Ray.” His performance as the legendary blues singer seems made for an Academy Award. Rarely in cinema does an actor so perfectly transform himself into such a complex character, let alone a real-life legend. The film, directed by Taylor Hackford, is an effective, honest and moving bio-pic.
Foxx has made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian, a musician (Twista’s “Slow Jamz”) and actor. Though he has predominantly been limited to supporting parts in mostly solid films like Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” and Michael Mann’s “Ali,” this year, Foxx became a legitimate A-list star by playing a cab driver opposite Tom Cruise in Mann’s “Collateral”.
Once he was signed to play the blind singer, Foxx spent several hours with Ray Charles himself. The actor earned his approval after the two played piano together (as the story goes, Foxx more than held his own), Shortly before his death in June, Charles listened to a screening of the film and was reportedly pleased with the final product.
But Foxx didn’t want to spend too much time in the company of the real Ray Charles while studying for this part. He didn’t want to end up playing Charles as an older man, he has said in interviews, and it is to his credit that he doesn’t fall into the trap.
Foxx doesn’t imitate Charles, he becomes him. The actor’s ability to channel the singer’s essence is uncanny. From his facial expressions, talking voice, walk and trademark self-hug to his overall demeanor the actor captures the essence of one of the most complex figures in popular music. The performance dominates the film — Foxx practically fills every frame — and is what makes it so convincing. Foxx’s performance belongs in the same ranks as Robert De Niro’s famous turn as boxer Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull.” Both are completely believable.
The film reveals sides to Charles that his loving fans may not be familiar with. The narrative cuts back and forth between the singer’s childhood and his progression towards stardom, emphasizing the tremendous impact his youth had on the man he became.
As a boy in Florida, Ray Charles Robinson (played impressively by eight-year-old C.J. Sanders) is shown growing up in great poverty without a father. At the age of seven, Charles begins to lose his sight because of severe glaucoma. His mother refuses to feel sorry for him and makes him promise not to become a “cripple” who depends on charity to get by.
Music plays a tremendous role in “Ray.” The singer’s affinity for music begins during his difficult childhood when he is taught to play piano by a local elder. The film follows the progression of his music career from Florida to Seattle, where he gets his first gigs, to his sold-out concerts around the world. The appeal of Charles’ gorgeous singing voice, which is dubbed in over Foxx’s, cannot be underestimated.
The film offers a multi-faceted look at Charles’ life. He is a notorious ladies’ man (he judges a woman’s attractiveness by the shape of her wrist) who neglects his family (his beloved wife and son) before reforming late in his life. He misbehaves on the road, becoming entangled in alcohol and heroin, to the point of jeopardizing the tremendous success he earns.
It is to the movie’s credit that these scenes do not become gratuitously overdramatized. In the wrong hands, Charles’ disabilities and struggles might be drowned in the glossy light of Hollywood. Here, the man in all his shortcomings and triumphs is presented with raw realism.
Though “Ray” is an undoubtably well-made film, all its other elements pale in comparison to Jamie Foxx’s masterful performance.