During the 1950s, Ray Charles’s groundbreaking fusion of gospel and R&B was considered by many (black and white) to be a blasphemous corruption of the Lord’s soul-stirring music, and the musician’s sensual, rhythmic songs certainly made literal the connection between religious and sexual passions. Yet Taylor Hackford’s Ray does for the artist exactly what Charles’s critics claimed the musician was doing to church music: It takes a truly unique, inspiring life and remakes it into a false, base mishmash of biopic bunk. Hokey, stilted, and club-footed, it’s a film that—through its simplistically uplifting story, gimmicky central performance, and passing interest in important social issues such as racial segregation and drug abuse—follows cloying Oscar season conventions to the note. And from its first to its final chords, this misfire is as jarringly dissonant and awkward as Charles’s playing was vibrantly, excitedly melodious.
Hackford’s film largely concerns itself with Charles’s life from 1949 to the late ‘70s, though flashbacks to the musician’s early days in the rural South (nostalgically presented as a golden, if somewhat ramshackle, paradise where dove-white sheets flapped poetically on outdoor clotheslines) depict his encroaching blindness at age six, the tragic death of his younger brother George, and his mother’s attempts to prepare her son for a life of unsympathetic hardship. When we first meet Ray (Jamie Foxx), he’s trying to make a go of it as a musician in the Jim Crow South, and thus a couple of cartoonishly racist white folks quickly appear to exemplify the nasty treatment a black, blind aspiring piano player like Charles might have received. I say “might” because, as written by James L. White, Ray seems only moderately infused with biographical accuracy; while the plot’s particulars are true in a literal sense (Charles did tour the country with the McSon Trio, nab a star-making recording contract with Atlantic records, and cheat extensively on his wife while struggling with a decades-long heroin addiction), the script’s specific events have been imbued with extreme artistic exaggeration. Whether it’s the cheesy montage of Charles caressing women’s wrists (the method by which he assessed their attractiveness), the painfully cute origins of “Hit the Road, Jack” or the god-awful device of having Charles occasionally imagine pools of water to dramatize the lingering trauma of his brother’s death, Hackford’s film, in spirit as well as fact, is utterly stilted and disingenuous.
As Charles, Foxx nails the slightly tilted head, soft, raspy voice, and bouncy gait of the legendary piano man. However, his mannered performance—reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s embodiment of outlaw comic Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon—never evolves past expert mimicry, failing to convey the complexities beneath the man’s trademark twitches. This shortcoming is overwhelmingly attributable to White’s corny, overstuffed script, which provides the actor with opportunities galore to lip synch Charles’s songs and make lame jokes about being blind but never provides a single flash of insight—aside from the insufficient dead brother back story—into what motivated Charles to create “soul” music, shoot smack, or indulge in extramarital dalliances. By the time Ray abruptly ends in 1979 (a full 25 years before his death!) with the state of Georgia choosing “Georgia on My Mind” as its official song—this after Charles had been banned from the state for opposing segregated concert venues years earlier (a creative liberty taken by the filmmakers and not based on historical fact)—my enthusiasm for a reverential film about Charles’s amazing, odds-defying life had been wholly reaffirmed. But this glossy hack-job ain’t the right one baby, uh-huh.