Dynamic Foxx Makes "Ray"
As if we weren’t sure
before, now it’s official: This is the year of the Foxx.
First, Jamie Foxx
reminded everyone of his strong comedic chops in the otherwise
uninspiring “Breaking All the Rules.” Then he stole a picture away
from Tom Cruise while at the same time showing a restraint and a range
theretofore unknown with “Collateral.” Now comes part three in a
trilogy of great performances, and if this one doesn’t have Oscar
written all over it than it would be a crime of titanic proportions.
Seriously, the Academy
Award’s race for Best Actor is over. Finished. Kaput. Just hand Foxx
the statue now. Not only is his performance as the legendary Ray
Charles in Taylor Hackford’s solid – if rather by the numbers – biopic
“Ray” stunning, it’s also just the type of role Oscar voters eat up
with a spoon. Heartfelt, emotional, raw; Foxx isn’t so much
impersonating the late singer/songwriter as he is channeling him.
Sure, the actor nails all of Charles’ trademark tics, shifts, bobs and
rhythms, but he also gets to something much, much deeper, entering
into territory full of inner demons and visceral sensitivity. Foxx is
a powder keg lighting the screen afire and bringing to life one of the
great musical geniuses of the 20th Century.
“Ray” follows Charles
from his beginnings here in the smoky nightclubs of Seattle of the
late 1940’s all the way to his final battles overcoming an addiction
to heroin in 1966. In a lifetime of accolades, awards, fame, family
and more, Hackford’s film is, of course, only a small glimpse into
this icon’s history, but what a glimpse it is. Choosing to focus on
the years that shaped him, the almost 20-year period that changed the
face of gospel, soul, blues, rock, pop and country-western – heck,
changed music – forever, the filmmakers have given audiences a
rare look inside the life and times of a true American success story.
And if it doesn’t fully rise above convention, doesn’t quite deliver
on all of its promise, “Ray” comes so tantalizingly close and is
filled with performances so refreshingly alive I can still sing its
praises with nary a reservation.
and co-writer James L. White choose to breakdown Charles life into
three distinct acts: As a five-year-old dealing with the duel losses
of his brother and his sight to a mysterious ailment, on the road
discovering the sound that would make him legend and, finally,
addictions to both drugs and women that could have stripped away all
he painstakingly earned. It’s a rather cliché story arc, and yet
Hackford directs with such a steady hand, weaving in and out of the
both the past and present, that it still works pretty darn well.
Credit for this doesn’t
go strictly to Foxx. The women of “Ray” are very bit as up to the task
of bringing this story to life as he is. Kerry Washington, so full of
promise in pictures like “The Human Stain” and the otherwise
forgettable “She Hate Me,” sparkles as Charles’ put-upon wife Della
Bea Robinson. More than just the prototypical ‘girl’ role, even if it
isn’t written much broader than that, Washington shares a touchingly
refreshing chemistry with Foxx, the duo bringing their troubled
relationship to life with passion and heart. Even better is “Daddy Day
Care” and “Legally Blonde 2” co-star Regina King. Finally getting a
role equal to her talent, King takes the part of lead Raylette Margie
Hendricks and runs with it. She’s a firecracker of sparkles and
energetic bursts, a pulsar speeding through space coming so close to
the atmosphere she’s about ready to self-immolate. Both newcomer
Aretha Robinson, as Ray’s dirt-poor mother Sharon Warren, and Aunjanue
Ellisof “Undercover Brother,” as Charles’ first female vocal partner
Mary Ann Fisher, are also wonderful, subtly shading both women into
much broader terrain than the screenplay appears to allow.
But “Ray” does have more
than its share contrivances. The opening Seattle sequences – mostly
embellished or outright fictionalized – have a b-movie pizzazz (they
even include a pint-sized emcee played by former Ewok Warwick Davis)
but they don’t push the picture forward. In fact, an early subplot
revolving around a Mrs. Robinson-like nightclub owner keeping Ray
around as her own personal sex toy is downright silly, screaming like
an idea that should have stayed on the drawing room table. And while
most of the musical epiphanies and explosions in the film feel
ornately organic, the birth of Hit the Road Jack feels like it
came straight out of a z-grade Hope and Crosby road movie.
Yet Hackford and company
get so much of the rest of it right, contrivances like that are few
and quickly forgotten. The artist’s relationship with Atlantic Records
managers Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard
Schiff) is wonderful, the trio embracing one another like family eager
for their exuberant child’s success. This teaming, long before
Atlantic became a multi-national record, would set the stage for the
rest of Charles’ accomplishments, even getting him the credibility and
commercial clout to insist upon ownership of his own masters –
something not even Frank Sinatra could claim – when he moved to ABC
Paramount in 1959. Sinatra went so far as to call Ray, “the only
genius in our business,” and that statement is just as true now as it
was all those decades a go when first spoken.
All you have to do is
look at the music to see it. From I Got a Woman to Drown in
My Own Tears to Georgia on My Mind to What’d I Say,
there was no genre, no style of music Charles could not take over and
make distinctly his own. This movie not only explores this talent, it
revels in it, musical supervisor Curt Sobel and composer Craig
Armstrong bringing Ray’s sounds to such life it’s almost like hearing
all these sublime records again for the very first time.
In the end, though, the
reason to pay the price of admission is to see next year’s winner for
Best Actor in action. This is Foxx’s coming out party, his ticket
stamped and taken for entry into the big time of A-list talents. Like
Charles was to music, it is quickly becoming apparent Foxx might just
be the same to movies. From comedy to drama to musical to action,
there seems to be no genre this talented dynamo can’t master. That’s
certainly the case here, for with Foxx onboard “Ray” doesn’t just
shine, it sings.