Great movie bios (“Man on the Moon,” “Malcolm X”) wisely avoided cramming in every detail of its subject’s life to capture an emotional authenticity. (In movies, emotional truth almost always trumps the actual truth.)
“Ray,” the new, sprawling biopic about soul pioneer Ray Charles, can be added to the short list as one of the best Hollywood biographies ever made. Director Taylor Hackford, whose dying-to-be-rediscovered “The Idolmaker,” and Chuck Berry concert film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” marks him as the right choice to direct, chronicles a crucial period-1948-1965- not only in Charles’ life, but also in the pop and racial landscape of America.
Charles’ music, a mixture of the blasphemous and devotion, may be the earliest examples of black sexuality entering modern pop music. His “What’d I Say,” with its call-and-response moans of “uhhh,” remains one of the great, blatantly erotic recordings ever.
Surprisingly candid for a biopic that had the cooperation of its subject, Ray shows a man who, after going blind at the age of 6, was blessed and cursed with a stubborn independence that allowed him to indulge his every desire. Ray’s best songs were about all forms of pleasure. Even his sad songs like “Born to Lose” and “Unchain My Heart” are laced with the anticipation of joys just around the corner.
The film suggests that Ray used his blindness and his disarming charm as a way to manipulate everyone in his life to do what he wanted. The scenes where we see how Ray takes in the world through his heightened remaining four senses and processes his experiences into his music have a pop vitality rarely seen in musical biopics.
The scene of Ray creating “Hit the Road, Jack” is so contrived it must be taken from real life. Already, music scholars and critics are dismissing the movie for short-changing key characters in Ray’s life and playing fast and loose with the chronology. What they seem incapable of realizing is that Ray allows us to feel a man’s life experiences like no other film since “Malcolm X.” At the center of the film is Jamie Foxx’s astonishing performance as he completes his announcement as one of the best actors working today. Like Jim Carey’s Andy Kaufman or Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X, Foxx transcends mere mimicry; Ray’s swaying head movements, his infectious southern-fried stutter-into a state of being. Foxx is Ray Charles.
The great supporting cast, includes Kerry Washington and Regina King as Ray’s wife and mistress respectively, Curtis Amstrong [a million miles removed from his Booger character in Revenge of the Nerds] as Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who nurtures Ray’s career during the ’50s, and Larenz Tate as a young Quincy Jones, all help to give the film life.
The film’s flaws, like its glossing over Ray’s landmark recording of Modern Sounds In Country & Western and its ending, which is abrupt and leaves you a little unfulfilled, are minor but noticeable. But the numerous musical numbers, which have a toe-tapping energy that give the film a beat, always pick up the pace just when you think its starting to lag.
Ray is a joyous film that shows a sometimes selfish, sometimes generous man who, although spent his life in the dark, whenever he played his music was able to see the light.