All of the hype plugged into Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles biopic “Ray” has centered on Jamie Foxx’s performance as the legendary singer/songwriter. Yet the real energy and passion in this film does not belong to Foxx, but rather to a quartet of actresses who play the women who shaped Ray Charles’ life: Sharon Warren as his dirt poor washerwoman mother, who instilled in her young child a sense of self-respect and responsibility as glaucoma robbed him of his eyesight; Kerry Washington as his wife Della Bea, who came from a proper Houston family of gospel singers and fell madly in love with the randy R&B man; and Aunjanue Ellis and Regina King as the fun-loving back-up singers who became the unofficial “Mrs. Charles” while touring with the musician and whose respective lives were ruined by their romantic entanglements with him.
Each of these women embed their roles with visceral emotion and heartbreaking anguish, especially Sharon Warren. In one astonishing sequence, she breaks down over the coffin of a younger son who was drowned in a freak accident. Warren throws her body and soul into the moment, shattering the environment with a depth and scope which goes far beyond mere acting — it is a moment of genuine pain which will devastate anyone who witnesses this. As the women who are repeatedly seduced and betrayed by Charles, the performances given by Washington, Ellis and King are a rollercoaster of great expectations and ruined realities. The women are all attractive and intelligent, which makes their respective surrenders to love unbearable to endure when the inevitable discovery of their unfaithful man’s true spirit emerges.
One reason why the supporting performances by these women resonate so strongly is the unavoidable fact that Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles completely fails to live up to the hype and the studio-planted buzz of an ensured Oscar nomination. There is no performance here, just a clever imitation which captures the vocal inflections and unique physical characteristics of Ray Charles (the singing comes directly from Charles’ classic recording). Foxx, or at least the screenplay he is working from, never gives Charles any true depth. He comes across as a one-dimensional shadow of a man, not a genuine flesh-and-blood human who is blessed with great artistic gifts but is bedeviled by his own demons and heavily flawed character. To be cruel, any talented black actor could’ve pulled this off.
Though in fairness, the failing of “Ray” is not Foxx’s fault. The film is epic in length (over two-and-a-half-hours) but minuscule in personality. A great deal of time is spent with aimless camera movements designed to show off the period costumes and set decoration (capturing the late 1940s to early 1960s), but important details of Charles’ life are absent. Flashback sequences find him as a child who went blind in a poor Florida village, but his formative years in a school for the blind are never alluded to, let alone depicted. His heroin addiction is presented with frank detail, but no one ever bothers to identify the source of his dope or even how much money Charles sank into this drug habit. There is a brief scene when Charles cancels a 1963 Augusta, Georgia, concert because the venue is segregated, but his own views on racism in general or the civil rights struggle of the 1960s in particular are not plumbed.
Even more troubling is the severely unflattering portrait of Ray Charles. As depicted here, Charles is a selfish, snarky, untrustworthy, unfaithful, chronically dishonest junkie. Yes, he had talent — but the music industry of the late 1940s to early 1960s was not lacking for talented performers and Charles (in this film, at least) was such a terrible person off the stage that it is impossible to see why anyone would waste their time with him. Before the film is through, he repeatedly hurts everyone who believes in him: family, lovers, bandmates, record companies and even core members of his audience (including Quincy Jones, winningly portrayed here by Larenz Tate) who never truly forgave him for abandoning rowdy R&B for syrupy orchestral pop and lame country-western music.
“Ray” concludes in 1965 after Charles is able to kick his heroin addiction with medical assistance. There is a brief 1979 coda when the state legislature in Georgia offered a public apology to Charles for the brouhaha of 1963 while naming “Georgia on My Mind” as the state song. Julian Bond appears briefly as himself in this final scene, and the veteran political/activist gives an unintentionally hilarious intepretation of his very, very solemn public persona. This goofy bit of posturing signifies everything that is wrong with “Ray”: it’s a good idea in concept but it just doesn’t work on the screen.