There's no telling what other great screen performances might be coming our way in what remains of 2004, but after seeing "Ray," director Taylor Hackford's sensational film biography of the late Ray Charles, one can't help feeling that the Academy Awards people should probably just bundle up this year's Best Actor Oscar and FedEx it over to Jamie Foxx right away. Foxx so completely embodies the blind, brilliant and indomitable Charles that his portrayal seems not so much a performance as an incarnation. It's a spectacular star turn.
And the movie rocks, naturally. Over the course of a more than 50-year recording career (he charted his first R&B single in 1949, and his last album was released this past August, two months after his death at the age of 73), Ray Charles peppered the pop charts with hugely influential hits, from primal R&B classics to lush, string-drenched ballads. In his creative prime, in the 1950s and '60s, his hair-raising holler and freight-train piano excursions blazed an exciting new path through blues, gospel, jazz and country music, breaking down barriers both stylistic and racial. His signature recordings — especially the ones he made for Atlantic Records from 1952 to 1959, like "I Got a Woman," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "The Right Time" and the titanic improvisation "What'd I Say" — are still amazing.
The difficulty in finding someone to convey this sort of prodigious musical talent onscreen is that the someone you get is usually going to be an actor, not a musician. In Woody Allen's 1999 "Sweet and Lowdown," Sean Penn, fine actor though he may be, was unpersuasive as a Django Reinhardt-like jazz guitarist because he clearly had only an approximate idea of what he was doing with the instrument in his hands. (I recall marveling at one shot in that movie in which Penn's fingers were scampering up the fret board while the notes we heard on the soundtrack were going in the other direction.) Jamie Foxx, a classically trained pianist, among several other things, has no such limitation. And he had the opportunity, early in the film's production, to sit down at a piano and play Ray Charles' music with Ray Charles himself (which must have been a daunting experience). So in the movie, when the camera drifts down to the piano keyboard during a song, Foxx's fingers are forming the actual chords, and hitting all the right notes. It makes a difference.
Foxx is also note-perfect in communicating a blind man's slightly tentative relationship to his surroundings. (He played the role in prosthetic makeup that kept his eyes essentially glued shut throughout the movie.) "My ears gotta be my eyes," Ray tells a friend, explaining that he always wears hard-soled shoes so he can hear his footsteps reverberating off corridor walls, and will know by a slight change in the sound that there's a doorway nearby ... or maybe something less innocuous. Foxx captures Charles' unwavering independence, too (he never used a cane or a seeing-eye dog). As for the man's cold and controlling side — something about which he was completely candid — Foxx nails that, as well, sometimes chillingly.
Ray Charles' story, as related here, is rich in social scope. It begins during the Great Depression, in Greenville, Florida, where 5-year-old Ray and his mother, Aretha (fiercely played by Sharon Warren, in her first film role), are living in ground-level poverty. Ray receives his first musical instruction from a local stride piano player, and takes to the instrument right away. Then he contracts glaucoma, and by age 7 he's lost his sight. His mother tells him, "Never let nobody turn you into no cripple" — an injunction he never forgets. She sends him to a school for the blind, where he learns to play saxophone and trumpet, among other instruments, and to write music in Braille. By the time he graduates, his mother has died, and he's left entirely alone in the world. Playing around Florida with local bands (including one white country group), he manages to save enough money to buy a bus ticket to Seattle. (He makes the trip by himself, sitting in the back rows of the bus set apart for black people.) There he forms a trio and begins recording for a local label, and he never looks back.
Jamie Foxx plays Charles as a shrewd, sly, funny man — a sightless flirt who judges women's physical possibilities by carefully feeling their arms for excess avoirdupois. ("I've had my eye on you all night," he tells one girl, after a quick wrist-jiggle.) He falls in love with and marries a demure gospel singer named Della (Kerry Washington), but out on the road, as she half-knows, he cheats on her with other women, principally the singers Mary Ann Fisher (the regally sexy Aunjanue Ellis) and Margie Hendricks (the feisty Regina King). He also starts shooting heroin — a habit that will ultimately end Hendricks' life and will plague Charles until 1965, when he's arrested by customs agents while coming back into the U.S. from a gig in Montreal, and is ordered either to clean up or go to prison. (He cleaned up, and never relapsed.)
Charles had a keen sense of injustice in matters of both race and business. In the early 1960s, he was the first musician to refuse to play segregated concerts in the South. This cost him a lot of money (the state of Georgia banned him from performing there "for life"), but he was adamant. He was also possibly the first R&B musician to negotiate a record deal (with ABC-Paramount) that gave him complete artistic control over his recordings and also allowed him to retain ownership of his master tapes — an unheard of thing at that time, and not exactly commonplace now.
"Ray" doesn't devolve into a dry and dramatically withering history lesson, but it has considerable historical interest — not least in the precision with which director Hackford and his crew have recreated the clothing (especially Charles' sleek silk suits) and the hairstyles of the period, and the élan with which they've imagined the bars and nightclubs in which Ray Charles once scuffled. It's also unusual in being a movie about black life and art, in which virtually all of the major characters are played by black actors, that was made by a white director and yet doesn't feel like a white man's sentimental racial fantasy. It feels real. And a large part of the reason for that is Jamie Foxx. He stands at the center of this very fine movie giving not just the performance of his career, but almost certainly of the year. If he ever tops it, we may all run out of adjectives.