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On Oct. 29, 2004, Universal unveiled Ray Charles biopic Ray in theaters, where it would go on to gross $124 million globally. The film earned six nominations at the 77th Academy Awards, winning in the sound mixing category as well as the best actor category for Jamie Foxx’s performance. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review is below.
Ray takes on a monumental task — capturing the entire career arc of one of America’s greatest artists, music legend Ray Charles. It succeeds more often than it doesn’t, and thanks to a kinetic, mesmerizing performance by Jamie Foxx in the title role, the film has immediate accessibility to millions of Charles fans the world over.
The first time you hear a Charles recording, you can’t help digging the sounds and the stories he tells in those songs. Same with this film: You’re into it right away. Yet unlike his songs, the film holds something back. It goes deep into a life filled with as much trouble and pain as triumph and accomplishment but never quite gets at the root of who Ray is. Possibly filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who spent 15 years developing the story with the singer-songwriter, got too close to his subject.
The very best thing about Ray is how it dramatizes Ray’s musical influences, the changes in his style and audience reaction to these developments. As a youth, Ray soaks up gospel, jazz and country. He begins by imitating the style of popular recording artists such as Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. But once he finds his own voice — much deeper and funkier — Ray experiments. He merges R&B with gospel — a sacrilege to some folks — and achieves a musical breakthrough. He then moves into rock and later country, and with each move the film in a scene or two nicely conveys the full impact these shifts had on the music scene.
The highlights of his personal life are equally dramatized — witnessing the drowning death of his brother at age 5; losing his sight by age 7; his early, lonely days on the road; the marriage to his devoted wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington); and his romantic involvement with female singers on the road.
He gets hooked on heroin, a habit he carries for years before he kicks it. The film spends probably too much time dwelling on this battle. Writers James L. White and Hackford try to link the drugs to guilt over his brother’s death and the stress of his handicap but are not persuasive in either case.
The movie never really penetrates Charles, but Foxx delivers a highly charismatic performance. He gets the angular way the man moved his body, the swaying back and forth on a piano bench or simply walking into a room. Most pivotally, Foxx expresses Charles’ inner nature, his natural sweetness and his harmony with the world thanks to an acute sense of hearing and an instinct for pleasing people.
Hackford, who made La Bamba and Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, one of the best documentaries ever about pop music, certainly knows how to make a film about music so the production is smooth from start to finish. Stephen Altman’s sets and Pawel Edelman’s cinematography capture the color palettes of the various eras. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published Sept. 12, 2004.
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