For 20 years or more America’s most beloved blues wailer as well as its most thoroughly forgiven celebrity junkie, Ray Charles is a Hollywood biopic grand slam, a walking, talking, grinning triumph over disability and poverty and dope and discrimination. Taylor Hackford’s Ray, for its part, never drops a stitch, methodically working the rise-and-fall-and-rise formula without a single consideration for the viewer’s self-respect or the possibility that even famous lives rarely have the shape of stories. Ray is so reflexive that it often seems to be about the procedural mechanics of biopics. Of course, goodwill is in absurd abundance; owner of the biggest smile and one of the most distinctive voices in 20th-century pop history, Charles is a charmed figure, easy for us to love (Hackford gets ridiculous mileage out of the man’s victorious reaction shots) and easy for the resourceful Jamie Foxx to impersonate.
From Depression-era Georgia to the fame-peak of the 1950s-’60s, Charles’s tale does not want for melodrama—but did Hackford (and co-writer James L. White) have to provide their hero with bad-acid-style hallucinations (water, corpses) to express the man’s childhood guilt over his younger brother’s drowning? Did Charles’s righteous defiance of his first club manager have to be explained via a flashback of his washerwoman mother standing up for her own shortchanged pay? Hackford trusts us to notice very little, least of all the musical performances, which feature original recordings and mostly last for no more than 10 seconds. Instead, we’re fed montages atop montages (“To show it all would take too long!” as the Team America boys sing it), briskly summarizing Charles’s career achievements and challenges instead of dramatizing them.
Once Charles moves his contract from sassy indie Atlantic to corporate ABC-Paramount—a deracinating shift that impacted his music the same way the Marx Brothers defection to Thalberg’s MGM castrated their films—Hackford’s movie falls into a meandering saunter. As the music grows dull, so does the movie, dawdling with Charles’s infidelities (Kerry Washington, as his indignant wife, shines) and inevitably reaching a climax of sorts with his clinic dry-out, shot like a Korn video and peppered with even more flashbacks.
Foxx is such an impeccable Ray Charles mimic that the role feels like a softball easy-pitched to him as reward for the solid job he did showing up the stars of Ali and Collateral. Among the real pleasures of Ray is, predictably, the music, which rip-snorts out of its stock eureka moments even when truncated. (The bogus improv story of how “What’d I Say” came about represents the film’s only patient spell.) The period context is also engrossing; we haven’t been here—the meticulously re-created urban mid-century America—in quite a while, and the stew of lovable retro design and archival establishing shots is comfortable and sweet. A revitalized yen for Charles’s gospel-plus-r&b Atlantic vinyl is a probable outcome of the movie’s experience, but will the biopic, pounding lugubriously along as it does this weary awards season (Guevara, Kinsey, Hughes, Barrie, Darin, Alexander, etc.), ever generate good movies? Or just rote exercises in gearwork?