From the moment Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) as a bold and blind teenager boards a Florida bus bound for the jazz scene in Seattle it's clear the young man has the tools and talents to make a difference. Touring across the Southern musical circuit the soulful singer gains a reputation which leads to his discovery by Atlantic Records who put a stamp on the piano man's inimitable style incorporating a myriad of musical styles from jazz to R&B to gospel and country. Still as his star rises Ray is haunted by his traumatic childhood--going blind at the age of five shortly after witnessing his younger brother's accidental drowning--leaving an indelible effect on his soul and manifesting itself in a heroin addiction as well as many torrid love affairs. But Ray is no fool having been raised by a fiercely independent mother who insisted he make his own way in the world; this one-of-a-kind genius knows what he wants--to give the world a new way to hear music.
Wow. Foxx's portrait of the man the myth the legend is nothing short of remarkable a tour de force. Of course by now everyone has heard how Foxx had his eyes prosthetically sealed shut so that he couldn't cheat at playing blind and as an accomplished pianist in his own right mastered Charles' fingering techniques on the keys. Foxx also captures the singer's hushed stutter as well as the unique walk--but that's just all the technical stuff. What the actor also manages to do is infuse the character with some qualities you wouldn't necessarily associated with the celebrated musician including a raw and magnetic sexuality (as he caresses a woman's wrist and sings to her sweetly you melt right along with the lady) and a steely almost abusive determination to succeed. As Foxx draws you into Charles' world reaching out not only through the music but with his vision it's palpable and immediate. To be honest it'll be hard to find another actor this year who could beat Foxx in the Oscar race. The rest of the cast ain't too shabby either with standouts including Curtis Armstrong (the same guy who played Booger in Revenge of the Nerds if you can believe it) as famed Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun; Kerry Washington as Charles' long-suffering wife Della Bea; Regina King as Charles' fiery mistress and powerful backup singer Margie Hendricks and newcomer Sharon Warren as Aretha Robinson Ray's hardworking and dedicated mother.
Ray is certainly a labor of love for director Taylor Hackford (Proof of Life). Having optioned the rights to the Ray Charles' story way back in 1987 it took a lot of cajoling to get studio execs to go for it. "I kept hearing 'Well it's an interesting story but it should be a TV movie '" Hackford told Entertainment Weekly--and therein lies Ray's inherent problem. While certainly worth dramatizing especially with the tragic loss of his brother going blind and kicking a nasty heroin addiction the story of Charles' personal heartbreaks and struggles is also one that needs a lot of razzle dazzle to make it feature film material. Ray manages to shine bright for the most part largely due to Foxx's presence and the wonderfully staged musical moments with all the great Charles' tunes blasting out into the audience (watch for spontaneous applause when "Georgia On My Mind" cues up). But even with all that Hackford's limited style and average camera work sometimes takes away from the film's big-screen qualities leaving you with what seems like a network television event--a really good one mind you but a TV movie just the same.