There is exactly one great moment in Ray, director Taylor Hackford’s openhearted but literal-minded biopic of Ray Charles. It occurs midway through the film. By then, we’ve seen how thoroughly Jamie Foxx willed himself to become Charles. Foxx didn’t merely master Charles’s stop-start verbal and physical tics (his teasing, naughty-boy “oh-uh, oh-uh” hesitations). The actor—who plays piano and does the best lip-synching I’ve ever seen in a film—demonstrates the way this performer could dismantle any song, phrase by phrase, and then reconstruct it, set to a new rhythm and infused with fresh urgency and poignance. Foxx understands, on an intellectual and a gut level, how Charles’s achievement in synthesizing gospel, R&B, and early rock and roll created a style that—contrary to what was said in so many of the obituaries that covered Charles’s death in June at the age of 73—wasn’t “influential,” because that implies a method that can be mimicked or built-upon. No, what Charles did was irreducibly unique: No one before or after him has ever sounded like him, or even ripped him off to notable effect. Foxx knows this—profoundly—in a way his director does not.
But in one scene, everything comes together. It’s when Charles is in a nightclub with his band and backup singers, the Raelettes, ripping through “(Night Time Is) The Right Time.” The song is a relentless vamp, little more than a chorus repeated over and over with subtle variations of erotic desire and intensity. We’ve already seen that the married Charles is having an affair with one of the Raelettes, a recently hired former member of the crisp girl-group the Cookies, a wiggly harmonizer adding gloss to Charles’s rough sound. And we’ve just seen Charles make it clear to the cookie he’s been nibbling on, Margie Hendricks, that, contrary to her wishes, he’s not going to leave his wife for her. Margie (Regina King, too often relegated to small smart-girl roles in everything from Jerry Maguire to Legally Blonde 2) is therefore livid when she goes onstage that night. And he may be blind, but Charles can feel her hurt, vehement stare. So when “Night Time” ascends to its climax, Ray and Margie bellow “Baby!” “Baby!” back and forth to each other, taking turns pulling at each other’s hearts. Foxx and King create the kind of sweaty thrill and emotional complexity that leave much of the rest of this spongy movie dry and stiff.
Too many times in Ray, Hackford falls prey to what you might call the biographic fallacy: He presumes that every hit in Charles’s canon was inspired by a specific event. Charles is elated by love for his newly pregnant wife (Della Bea Robinson)? Bingo: “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” Charles needs to extend a song during a short set to meet his contractual obligations? No prob: He improvises the famous call-and-response coda attached to “What’d I Say” on the spot. Even if some of his hits were inspired in this manner, it’s just not believable that they all were, and Hackford can’t sustain that conceit through the dramatic arc he has to complete: the tragedy of boyhood blindness; the struggling early years finding his “voice” on Atlantic Records; his triumphant experiment with country music on ABC Records; getting hooked on and unhooked from heroin; and his final entrance into the pop pantheon, where you not only get Grammys but the clammy hugs of presidents eager to show how “down” they are with a bona fide hepcat.
Hackford began his career with a sure touch for pop irony in 1980’s The Idolmaker (O.C. fans: Rent this for Peter Gallagher’s shrewd parody of a fifties Elvis wannabe like Fabian). But the director is so deferential to Ray Charles (most of the film was made before Charles died) that his movie is as studied and wan as the faded-brown tint of many of the scenes, as though Hackford and his cinematographer were trying for live-action versions of Charles’s cheesy sixties ABC Records album covers.
There have been blazing actor-as-pop- star performances in the past—think Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire!—but Foxx is on to something so potent, it transcends the movie around him. He conveys Charles’s ambition to both revolutionize music and make hits (the ultimate pop paradox), but in doing so, he denies himself the standard actor’s comfort zone: In movies like this, it’s typical to present the star as a double crowd-pleaser—we’re supposed to take our cues from the delighted audiences in the film’s nightclubs, to be equally charmed by him in our movie-theater seats. Instead, Foxx undercuts Charles’s vast powers of enchantment; he’s pitiless in showing us how self-centered and greedy (for art and flesh, not money) Charles could be—he never signals us to like the singer. Nonetheless, we end up admiring both Foxx and Charles even more: for their ruthless drive, for the brazenness of autodidacts’ imposing their wills upon the world. It demeans Foxx to say he was born to play this role; rather, he invented a Ray Charles that anyone, from a nostalgic baby boomer to a skeptical Jay-Z fan, can understand and respect.
The rest of the casting, though, is weirdly erratic. The West Wing’s Richard Schiff is terrific as Jerry Wexler because he deletes all the pouty mannerisms he deploys on TV and makes Wexler a hardheaded maestro of soul. But having Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun—a courtly, witty, musically astute cool dude—portrayed by Curtis Armstrong, who brings along the blank, boobish stare of his best-known role, the stooge Herbert in TV’s Moonlighting? Well, as Ray might say, that’s just crazy, man. If you chopped up its ferocious concert scenes into a series of Ray Charles music videos Ray Charles never made, Ray would be as wired and wonderful as Foxx’s performance. Sure, it’s the Jamie Foxx breakout role. But the movie around it is so systematically “inspirational” that it comes perilously close to sabotaging the breakout.