"Ray," Taylor Hackford's ambitious, honest, music-drenched, handsomely mounted, wonderfully acted biopic of the great Ray Charles, has so much good stuff going for it that it ought to be a killer. So why did I keep looking at my watch? It certainly wasn't the music: you can never get tired of hearing Charles sing "I Got A Woman" and "What'd I Say." Nor does "Ray" fall into hagiography: while it pays tribute to Charles's refusal to regard his blindness as a handicap, his activism and his seminal contribution to music, Hackford isn't afraid to show us his flaws: the many infidelities (it's said the Raelettes got their name because they had to "let Ray"), the heroin abuse, the kiss-offs to old friends for the sake of a more lucrative deal. Genius isn't nice.
Charles crossed over from blues to gospel to R&B to country to pop, from black to white audiences at a time when segregation reigned. And at the age of 7 he crossed over from the world of sight to the world of the sightless, not long after watching his brother drown. It's interesting that the most moving segments of "Ray" are these flashbacks to his childhood, when blindness descends and he learns, under the guidance of his remarkable mother (Sharon Warren), to navigate the world by sounds alone. C. J. Sanders plays Ray as a child, and these are the only scenes in which we see his eyes.
Jamie Foxx's adult Ray is hidden behind those dark glasses. Foxx is amazing: the rocking body, the gravel voice, the ecstatic musicality, the pride and self-destructiveness are perfect, not to mention the joyous carnality that coexists with Charles's shrewd businessman's mind. But we're always at arm's length from the man. Is it because we never see his eyes? Foxx is denied one of the most crucial tools an actor has, which makes his performance all the more remarkable, but may explain the paradoxical chill at the heart of a movie about one of our most exuberant musicians.
Foxx gets royal backup from the women in the cast: Kerry Washington as his churchgoing wife, Della Bea; Warren as his mother and, best of all, Regina King as the Raelette Margie Hendricks, his mistress and musical inspiration. Margie's smoking rendition of "Hit the Road Jack" after she and Ray have brawled is a highlight. "Ray" is filled with such pleasures, but it's hobbled by the too-familiar conventions of the musical biopic: with so many chapters of Charles's life to cover, Hackford's movie never finds a rhythm, a groove, to settle into. It wins its battles without winning the war.