THERE MAY NOT be a bigger-hearted performance this year than Jamie Foxx's in "Ray." Assuming the persona of Ray Charles as if it were always his, he becomes the singer in such an evocative way, you're not sure which one's the real Ray anymore. When the movie concludes with footage of the actual Ray Charles toward the end of his life (he died in June at age 73), there is almost no jarring feeling -- no reminder you've been watching an actor before that.
Some have lamented in higher critical circles that "Ray" is so-so and that Foxx is the best thing about it. This is only partly true. The movie, directed by Taylor Hackford, is certainly drawn directly from the Official Biopic Hollywood Playbook, in which the subject is caught, as if by chance, experiencing the most significant events of his or her life.
These movies unfold like an overextended highlights reel, and some part of you feels cheated about it. You don't feel as though you're getting the texture of that person's life, just the official stats and high points. Watching the scenes of Charles's heroin shooting, for instance, I remembered the deeper texture of what it's like to be addicted in Clint Eastwood's "Bird," thanks to Forest Whitaker's affecting turn as Charlie Parker. Eastwood left things to the actor to show that, not by effects or editing.
"Ray" does have this biopic element. And certainly it honors that cheesy requirement that all movies end with a cue to stand up and cheer. You can almost hear a voice-over on the coming attractions reel: "The story of one man's courage against the odds." But Hackford's film, scripted by James L. White, also has the needed texture.
In one of the movie's most telling scenes, the young Ray (played at this point by C.J. Sanders) has just become blind. He takes a fall. Calls for his mother. She's in the room and opens her mouth to speak but checks herself. The boy keeps hollering. Slowly he gets up. He gropes his way around. Now he starts using his ears to locate things: a passing horse and cart outside, a boiling pot of water. He locates a cricket, catches it in his hands. And his mother stays silent. She's teaching him independence.
But we get ahead of ourselves. This is about a little boy born in rural poverty in Albany, Ga., in 1930, raised by a proud mother. The most traumatic incident of his life occurs seven years later. His younger brother George is drowned and the young Ray blames himself. The shock, in conjunction with glaucoma, affects his eyesight the following year. He becomes blind. And his mother gives him that lesson.
Ray's blindness begets many gifts. He develops a heightened ability for mimicry of people and the music that he grew up with. A vibrant pianist and vocalist, he absorbs rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz and even country directly into his soul, and he plays it back with virtuoso ease. He also gains a fierce sense of independence and business savvy, which will serve him well when people in the music industry try to take advantage of him.
But there are other permutations to his lack of sight. He's painfully lonely. His need for women and the comfort of heroin become a debilitating double monkey on his back. His mother warned him at an early age not to live like a cripple. He rejects walking canes or guide dogs. But the drugs and the women, meant to be solace for the darkness around him, become handicaps of their own.
After the tragedies of his childhood, the young Ray learns to read Braille and develops his musical abilities. At 17, he takes a bus to Seattle, where he joins the local jazz scene. His career picks up when he signs with Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), founders of Atlantic Records.
There is so much that he goes through, including a romance with Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington), whom he marries; his passionate, on-the-road relationship with Margie Hendricks (Regina King); and his friendship with band member and saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman (Bokeem Woodbine).
The story also gets into Ray's lifelong battle with addiction, his checkered life as a married man and father, and a confrontation with the Jim Crow South: His refusal to perform in a segregated hall in Georgia leads to a ban for life from the state. (It's later rescinded in the 1970s when the state issues a formal apology and makes his "Georgia on My Mind" the official state song.) And of course, there are the songs, with such hits as "I've Got a Woman," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Georgia on My Mind" and "America the Beautiful."
Thanks to the inspired work of Hackford and White, production designer Stephen Altman, cinematographer Pawel Edelman and editor Paul Hirsch, a more than two-hour film slides by gracefully rather than trundles. But the emotional power, rightfully, comes from the actors. Washington and King are spirited as Ray's good and bad women; Woodbine is a charm as Fathead.
They're just the backup, though. Foxx does what he's supposed to. He steals his own show. His body movements are not exaggerated but subtle; and his verbal performance is remarkable, perfectly capturing Ray's inflections and directness, yet making them his own. Being Jamie Foxx, the funny man from "In Living Color," he's never far away from a humorous aside, whether it's a slight furrowing of the brow, a quick rejoinder or a deftly comic "hello!" when things are getting a little out of hand around him, which they often are. No matter what comes down, and there's a whole lot of that, this Ray carries his own charismatic flashlight because no one else is going to do it for him. And as he lights his way, he illuminates the whole theater.
RAY (PG-13, 135 minutes) -- Contains extensive drug use and sexual situations. Area theaters.