Jamie Foxx delivers an astoundingly rich performance as Ray Charles, a musical legend who overcame a childhood of almost debilitating poverty, the loss of his eyesight at age 7 and the racism of the Deep South. Working from a script by James L. White and collaborating with Charles himself before his death earlier this year, Foxx and director Taylor Hackford give us an all-too-human portrait of the man who, though he radiated optimism, wrestled with many personal and private demons.
Ray recounts how Charles made his way to Seattle in 1949 after studying music theory in northern Florida, only to find himself working in one small Southern club after another with a traveling band. His distinctive style on the piano caught the ear of executives at a small label, Swingtime Records, who signed him to his first recording contract. Eventually his contract was purchased by Atlantic Records, and it was during his tenure there, from 1952-59, that Charles created modern soul music, a melding of traditional rhythm and blues with the passion and format of gospel music. Though initially controversial, this innovative style marked Charles as a true visionary and opened the door to further experimentation.
As Charles finds his way musically, we see him succumb to the temptations of cocaine, which he uses to fill the many lonely hours he's forced to endure on the road as a result of his disability. This and his penchant for the ladies prove the major obstacles to Charles' complete happiness with Della Bea (Kerry Washington), a gospel singer Charles marries and attempts to build a life with. With all of these dramatic elements in play, it's nearly impossible not to become engaged by the film. Charles' struggle to succeed professionally and personally is affecting, but the movie's true power comes during flashbacks to his youth, when his young mother (Sharon Warren) instills in him a sense of pride and strength that will give him a fighting chance. The emotional power of these scenes eventually permeates the entire film and helps provide a poignant and powerful conclusion.
As one would expect, the music is great, and seeing the birth of some of Charles' biggest hits re-created on screen is fascinating. The cast is exceptional, with Warren, Washington, and Regina King (playing one of the musician's many lovers) particularly good. But in the end, this is Foxx's film, and he makes the most of it. Far from an impersonation, his performance is a respectful and accurate tribute to the man, suffused with passion, love and pain. The actor doesn't portray Charles; he becomes Charles, capturing the genius and failings of an all-too-human man. Jamie Foxx makes Ray exceptional.