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An album of Ray Charles

. "Ray"

As film biographies go, this one about a musical legend is way above average. But let's not go overboard in our praise, as some critics are doing. As illustrious as the central figure being celebrated is, and as good a performance Jamie Foxx delivers in portraying him, and as skilled and tasteful as Taylor Hackford's direction may be, this is formulaic film fare, and there's no escaping it.

So, what I'm saying is, it may not be the slam dunk to an Oscar that its vocal supporters are trumpeting. In fact, it may be a spoiler to Foxx's excellent break out as a serious dramatic actor in the highly esteemed, "Collateral," a performance I'm rooting for more. But, that's just me.

The story of a creative person rising to attention, success and stardom and then hitting the bottle or drugs and spoiling a good part of his life is not, anymore, much of an attention getter. It's old, a theme that's too common to rouse interest or hold attention. As it applies to a specific celebrity may provide a limited lift to the enterprise but one cries for more: more insight, more revelation. The "more" we get here, however, is the music itself.

Ray Charles was a man of seemingly unending originality and creativity. He led his followers down unexpected paths and not only kept them but brought in a widening circle of musical tastes. The sources of his style was born out of gospel, blues, R & B, and country. Musically, he was a restless spirit, innovative, commanding, quick minded. He was also, as the movie tells us, a path-blazing businessman in the realm of the mighty music companies. He more than held his own as he climbed the charts and into legend.

He was an adulterer. Oh, my. So, his poor loyal wife had to live in his ever expanding mansions from Georgia to Beverly Hills and raise his kids knowing he had a woman on the road. He was an addict who wouldn't stop, an equal source of conflict. Home life was not always peaceful, but he always considered it home. He also eventually kicked the habit and was clean of drugs when he died this past June (2004).

After this portrayal by Foxx it's hard to imagine anyone who might have done a better job of conveying the public reality of blind Ray Charles. His gestures, swaying body moves, joyful self-hugging, ear-up tilt when listening and the intensity of his feeling behind the keyboard all seem to image classic Charles. It's not a mere impersonation but an illumination of a character and his art to the extent he witnessed and understood it.

The music is the high that, if anything does, overcomes the formulaic structure of the film. The troubles with the movie, however, are the narrative lows in between the performance footage, which don't come close to matching the beat in entertainment value. These inevitable moments of his supposed life are spent bullets. They are dupes of other biopics that fit the conventions of life stories on film which generally do little more than expose the already observed public image of the subject.

But, while the public record of his life may amount to film cliche', "Ray," the movie is not a loser. Far from it, with a sterling central performance and the ticket to Charles' rousing musical genius. It isn't the superficial career reconstruction that makes the movie worth the price of admission, it's the "Best of Charles" compilation that will move you.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles
A commanding performance


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Ray Charles:
Ultimate Hits Collection