When Ray Charles died in June last year, he had ascended to the most rarefied level of fame: no longer merely a celebrity, he had become an institution.
There is no doubt that he deserved this status nor that he enjoyed it, but universal esteem is not always a blessing for an artist. Some of Charles' music has become so familiar that we risk growing deaf to the audacity and innovation that made it great in the first place.
The opening bars of Hit the Road Jack can be heard at every ballpark in the land, whenever a hapless pitcher heads for the showers -- a clever enough joke the first hundred times you hear it but a curious fate for a song that crackles with so much high-spirited sexual drama.
In Ray, the new film biography directed by Taylor Hackford, some of that drama is restored, and you hear some of Charles' best music -- the signature rhythm 'n' blues hits of the mid-1950s, the astonishing forays into orchestral pop and country-and-western of the early 1960s -- as if for the first time.
In the movie's account, Hit the Road Jack emerges almost spontaneously from a hotel-room lovers' quarrel between Ray (Jamie Foxx) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King), one of his backup singers. This episode may be apocryphal and is no doubt embellished, but Ray succeeds to an unusual extent for a movie of this kind in presenting a vivid, convincing portrait of an artist.
If it falls into some of the lacquered conventions that bedevil so many biopics, it also has some of the sly candor that makes Charles' memoir, Brother Ray (written with David Ritz), such a delight to read. And though Ray occasionally strays into sentimentality and facile psychologizing, Hackford and screenwriter James White, have hit upon an insight that eludes most filmmakers who try to put the lives of artists on screen, namely that the real story lies in the art itself.
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles),
Kerry Washington (Della Bea Robinson), Regina King (Margie Hendricks), Clifton Powell (Jeff Brown)
Running time: 152 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
So while Ray occasionally flashes back to Charles' childhood in Florida, recounting the twin traumas of his younger brother's death and his own blindness (the result of glaucoma), and while it does not shy away from his womanizing or his heroin addiction, its main concern is his music.
Hackford trusts the audience's taste and intelligence enough to assume that, much as we might be curious about Charles' mother (Sharon Warren) or his marriage, we are most interested in learning -- in hearing -- how Charles went from Nat King Cole-style crooning to a raucous fusion of gospel and blues and beyond, treating the whole range of American vernacular music -- black and white, sacred and secular, urban and rural -- as a cornucopia of musical possibilities. We hear a lot of what he made of this bounty, and Ray lets us appreciate Charles' genius and eclecticism in a way that no CD boxed set could.
This is partly a result of Hackford's judiciousness, generosity and the deft way he weaves Charles' recordings through the behind-the-scenes set pieces that fill out the narrative. But what makes Ray such a satisfying picture, in spite of some shortcomings and compromises, is Foxx's inventive, intuitive and supremely intelligent performance.
That this erstwhile comedian possessed formidable acting chops was evident even back in the days of "In Living Color," but it was not always clear how far he would go in developing them. It's clear now. He has mastered Charles' leg-swinging gait, his open-mouthed smile and the tilt of his head, as well as the speaking style that could sometimes sound like a form of scat singing.