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Late in Ray, Ray Charles suffers an hallucination in which he can see. At that moment, he takes off his sunglasses and reveals himself to actually be actor Jamie Foxx. It's a startling and almost spell-breaking shot, because you can absolutely believe the hype. Foxx so effectively submerges himself in the life and character of the troubled singer that you forget that he is, after all, just an actor playing the man.

The performance moves beyond mere impersonation. Every tic, every trait, just seems natural. Prosthetics help a bit, forcing Foxx's eyes shut, but the heart and soul come from within. So it's really a shame that the script falls prey to so many false moments; Foxx himself never has one.

Written by James L. White and director Taylor Hackford, the story covers Charles' rise from young honky tonk pianist to groundbreaking entertainer almost consumed by his addiction to heroin. That in itself cannot be considered trite, because, after all, it is true.

But the man's demons get literal manifestation in the memory of his drowned brother, a disturbing image that repeats too often and somehow gives a hollow excuse to why Brother Ray got a taste for smack. To Hackford's credit, the film at least reveals the drowning early, but also recognizes it as a weak point.

Weaker, still, is the overall lack of impact of heroin use until the film's climax. Though Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun (a welcome Curtis Armstrong) recognizes the addiction, it never gets in the way of recording. Charles just has "the junkie itch." In a few spots, Hackford elides some swipes at how the entertainment industry turns a blind eye to drug use, but it's so subtle a lot of audiences may miss that anything was wrong at all.

Charles overcame many prejudices and predators, and the film does include all that. But the script also makes some moments way too pat, especially in portraying the development of his musical style. You can buy that maybe, just maybe, the song "I've Got a Woman" found inspiration in his falling in love with his eventual wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington). However, the scene in which he discovers "Hit the Road, Jack" is almost a parody of a movie moment - especially since the final credits reveal somebody else wrote it.

Still, Hackford has a master director's touch. The visuals soar even when the script bumps the road. Despite its weaknesses, the film moves at a brisk clip that makes its nearly three hours seem much less.

Part of the credit has to go to Foxx, but the rest of the roles have been cannily cast as well. Bokeem Woodbine quietly pulls focus as the saxophonist "Fathead," a stalwart sideman for Brother Ray for years. As Della Bea, Washington is nothing less than luminous, a fine contrast to Regina King as Charles' first Raelette and second major mistress, Margie Hendricks. (Even there the script fails; the issue of his infidelity rears its head then disappears. The guy had a bastard son and Della Bea just shrugs. No man is that charming.)

The smaller roles, too, have been cast for quirks. In addition to Armstrong getting the rare chance to play something close to normal, Warwick Davis shows up as an emcee at the first jazz club Charles plays for. It could be an historically accurate casting, but it's good to see the guy sans fur or leprechaun suit, actually acting.

It is that acting that makes this film absolutely worthwhile. Sure, the music's good, too, with Ray Charles himself having re-recorded several vocals before his death this year. But we've had his albums for years. Now we have Foxx's performance, the latest in a string of good roles for him, but the one that will finally make him a star. Collateral made me think he was; Ray puts him in his place.


Derek McCaw

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