Saturday, October 30, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jamie Foxx
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Drug Use, Some Sexuality, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: Buzz says Foxx is Oscar-worthy in his portrayal of the late great Ray Charles.
The Bottom Line: He is, even if he's in a picture occasionally clouded by flashback storytelling.

Ray is another of those great pictures that almost never got made. Director Taylor Hackford made this biodrama of music legend Ray Charles independently -- with the blessing of Charles himself -- only after struggling to get funding and then a distributor. Universal Pictures picked it up because a studio head happens to be a huge Charles fan.

This film deserved better treatment from the get-go. Only after Charles' passing earlier this year, after reading various obituaries, did I realize how much innovation Ray brought to his craft: the fusion of jazz, country, gospel and R&B. Charles could inject an old standard with new vitality. This cat could swing. And the picture heaps enough music onto you to make you want to get up and dance.

But it's Foxx who sells it. He has Charles' mannerisms and speech patterns down cold, including the head bobbing, a by-product of the blindness Ray developed as a child growing up dirt-poor in Georgia. Foxx worked with his eyes glued shut, and he's no musical greenstick, knowing how to play piano and even contributing a few vocals when he's not lip-synching to Charles' classic tracks.

Ray follows Charles' life from his first steady gig in Seattle up the ladder of success. We flash back to his early exposures to music, his coping with blindness, and the words of his strong-willed mother. We are also exposed to his herion addiction -- at times in graphic detail -- and womanizing. Charles fathered numerous children with numerous women, but for the sake of comprehension the picture focuses on two, his wife Della (Kerry Washington) and backing singer Margie (Regina King). We also get a fair share of Charles' business dealings, including the groundbreaking agreement he struck with ABC/Paramount to own his own master recordings.

All this might be enough to overload a picture, but director Hackford keeps the story moving and grooving with the power of Charles' music, powered by Foxx. Some scenes feel out of place, and there's a recurring nightmare Charles has about the death of his younger brother. But Foxx outshines the faults. As the real Ray Charles said about Fox before his death, "The kid's got it."

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