Here's Ray Charles in the office of Atlantic records, bubbling over with the confidence that comes when you know you've got what the record execs want: "I'll make it do what it do baby...yeah!" It's the line you've been hearing on every trailer and commercial for Ray
, and it neatly sums up how Jamie Foxx puts the juice into this standard rags-to-riches story and makes it become a riveting, uplifting drama. Foxx makes it do what it does, baby. Yeah.
Now, bio-dramas are a tough sell. On top of the usual yardsticks I use to measure films -- script, acting, editing, photography, etc. -- doing a story about a real person carries an obligation to authenticity, especially when the audience knows the subject as well as the filmmakers. When the face, voice and mannersims are as contemporary and as well-known as Ray Charles, meshing real-life with imitation is even a couple of notches higher on the difficulty meter. But Ray
never falters. Jamie Foxx does more than simply 'play' Ray Charles - for two and a half hours he becomes him. The voice, look and mannerisms are spooky, and, like other great biographical performances, the separation between subject and actor virtually disappears. You're just there, gettin' down and dirty in mid-20th century America alongside a poor, blind, black man who has to endure personal tragedy, racism, physical handicap and covetous competition, as you watch him climb from lonely obscurity to become one of the signature musical sounds of the past century. Foxx, along with the rest of cast, melts into the montage of a man's life and the era in which he lived. Ray
is a success, and a sure multiple Oscar nomination.
One of the reasons for the film's authenticity is its almost complete avoidance of recognizable actors. Nobody's face pulled me out of the scene and away from the story. Foxx is the biggest name but even he's hardly a box-office magnet. Richard Schiff, who plays Toby on the West Wing, is barely recognizable, and the rest of the cast names disappear beneath their characters.
The film is driven by its relationships with strong women, just as the man himself was. Sharon Warren plays Ray's tough and smart Mom in an outstanding supporting role shown entirely in flashbacks. Ray's apparently boundless romantic interests are narrowed down to the three pivotal ones: Bea (Kerry Washington), his wife through many years and many more affairs; Marge (Regina King), his longstanding lover and de facto wife while he was on the road; and Mary Anne (Aunjanue Ellis), another lover hoping the magic of Ray Charles will rub off before she gets the brush off. From bandmates to bedmates, the casting is spectacularly authentic.
Objectively, the film is nothing new. The story follows the same path and has the same resolutions as so many other success-story films, and it takes its sweet time moving through the years. But Ray
is propelled to another altitude by a dynamite soundtrack and the amazing ability of Jamie Foxx to channel Ray Charles' life and charisma onto the screen. The fact that Ray Charles himself participated in the film production and music shortly before his death makes the story that much more bittersweet. The finished product -- all 150-plus minutes -- works as a spectacular period piece as well as it does a powerful biography, as the photography saturates one man's life and the changing times in which he lived with vivid, living colour. Ray
does what it does, baby, and it does it very, very well.
With this film, Oscar season has now officially got game.