There are many reasons to take in "Ray": glorious music, compelling story, the recent death of its subject. But the best reason is the absolutely astounding performance of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, a scion of southern apartheid, a man who, being blind and black, spent a lifetime trying to get his. To hear Charles sing "America the Beautiful" was to hear not so much a paean to America's greatness as the blues of a man who grabbed and got -- but even in the winning, never forgot why he had to fight in the first place.
Forget about Foxx's past comedy career as Weird Wanda ("I wanna rock your world") on the TV sketch show "In Living Color." To describe Foxx's performance here is to gush, and so gush we will: He is amazing, inhabiting Charles's skin with the ease of a doppelganger, performing with eyes glued shut, his bass speaking voice ratcheted up to a breathy falsetto, his broad shoulders narrowed. He captures it all: the bobbing head movements, the sly wit, the turn-on-a-dime temper of a truly complicated man. He doesn't act so much as he channels. It is the kind of performance that creates careers.
In Charles, Foxx has plenty of material to mine. He was born at the bottom rung of poor, to a washerwoman mother and a father who was mostly missing in action. As a very young boy, he saw his baby brother drown in his mother's washtub. Shortly afterward, at the age of 7, he went blind. Being "colored" and disabled meant there was no end to the insults. He was called a "blind nigra" (and worse) and "blind Bama" (a reference to his rural roots).
Some people assumed that blind meant stupid, a perception that his proudly independent mother (played by Sharon Warren) urged him to fight. And he did, learning to live as independently as possible but also learning to use his blindness to manipulate. In the opening scene, he tells a racist bus driver that he lost his sight in the Battle of Normandy. ("You were in Normandy?" the bus driver asks, suddenly scrambling to assist the man he'd scorned just a minute before.) He did what he had to do in order to do what he most wanted: make music.
And what music, encompassing everything from raunchy blues to mournful country-western to jazz. "Ray" brilliantly captures the excitement of the man onstage. In the hands of director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman"), the music scenes, which employ Charles's recordings, are an intoxicating whirl, familiar terrain perhaps for older viewers but a revelation for younger ones who associate him with "you've got the right one, bay-beee" Pepsi commercials. Bit by bit, the evolution of a man is shown through his music, from his marrying of gospel with popular soul music to his crossover success of "What'd I Say," an improvised tune that topped both the R&B and pop charts.
But "Ray," being a movie, ultimately resorts to movie techniques. It gives you standard biopic fare -- tough childhood, humble beginnings and then a breathless ascent to the top -- until it whips around to the ending, a sappy-sweet, hugely unbelievable moment of Hallmark hoo-ha.
Ray's birth mother, Aretha (in fact, he was raised by two women), needs only a halo to complete her portrait of the saintly single mom -- she's even filmed in soft focus. Southern whites are painted with too broad a brush, and similarly, Charles's chicks on the side are all one-dimensional, money-grubbing ho's (though Regina King, as Raelette Margie Hendricks, gives her underwritten role considerable heft and fierceness). The death of Charles's brother is used as an easy reference point for all his troubles, the event that supposedly led him to a life under the spell of the needle. (Charles would have disagreed with that categorization. He once confessed to Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" that he used drugs for another reason: He liked them.)
And then there's the womanizing. Oh, the womanizing. Blindness didn't hamper his notorious tomcatting. Charles used an unorthodox technique to ascertain a woman's attractiveness: He'd shake her hand, and then make his way up her arm, squeezing and caressing, searching out excess bumps and bulges. It's funny on the first take, amusing the second, played out by the third, fourth and fifth times.
We don't hear about the divorces. (He had two.) Instead, his first wife, Della Bea, played with a wary vulnerability by Kerry Washington, is shown to be a stand-by-your-man type who served as the inspiration for him to get straight. In reality, they divorced in the '70s, and gin and pot became his substitutes for heroin. And we don't hear much of the children born out of wedlock: The movie acknowledges one, but he had many more, roughly a dozen children in all.
Despite the cinematic clunkers, "Ray" succeeds, carried by Charles's marvelous music and the force of Foxx's talent. In many ways, Ray Charles Robinson was not a nice man: He cheated on his wives, bamboozled his mistresses and drop-kicked friends and colleagues whom he no longer found expedient. But he had the right stuff, reshaping American music and endearing himself with his aw-shucks demeanor. It is to the film's credit -- and Foxx's -- that we are able to see, behind the flash and fury, a man who didn't know how to love, and was so much the lonelier for it.
Ray (152 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for depiction of drug addiction, sexuality and some thematic elements.