What’ll we do without him?

“Ray” doesn’t leave out the unpleasant parts of the musician’s life

Tom Horgen

Before he created soul music, Ray Charles was great at mimicking other musicians. He did a mean Nat King Cole impression.

Early on in this biopic, a young Charles tries explaining this talent to a girl he likes. It’s a jolting conversation. But not for the characters. It’s jolting for us. All this talk of mimicry tends to highlight the fact that the actor playing Charles, Jamie Foxx, has been doing a flawless impersonation himself.

Who would have thought the comedian who played Wanda on “In Living Color” and made a quest out of finding condoms in “Booty Call” would become a new Marlon Brando?

“Ray” is definitely an actor’s movie. Foxx and the rest of the cast inhabit their roles with a ferocity that the late musician’s story deserves. Their director, Taylor Hackford, whose credits include “The Devil’s Advocate” and the Russell Crowe throw-away “Proof of Life,” seems like an unlikely leader in this endeavor, but apparently he’s tried for more than a decade to get this film made.

While Hackford’s visual artistry is on display in “Ray” – he engulfs Charles’ sightless world with an astounding palate of colors – he trips up with biopic cliches, using newspaper headlines and some silly montages to move the story along.

Consequently, Hackford gives us a good movie filled with great scenes, rather than a great film from start to finish.

The film’s best moments are its most intimate. These sequences, all of which explore the melancholy that often devoured Charles’ life, rely heavily on the actors.

From the day he watched his 5-year-old brother drown, Charles felt alone in the world. After losing his brother, he would lose his sight and then his mother too. These traumas led to a descent into a brutal heroin addiction, even as his career took off in the 1950s. Charles mixed gospel harmonies and sexualized lyrics to fashion soul music – while strung out on smack.

Hackford does deserve credit for his unflinching portrayal of Charles’ vices. The man was an awful womanizer. The film doesn’t show us the full extent – he had 12 children – but it shows us enough.

But Hackford loosens his grip outside of these intimate moments. In his dash through two decades of Charles’ life, his depictions of more public events, such as Charles’ drug bust, feel like quick summaries of what really happened.

While this recklessness does create a break between some scenes, it can’t take away from the quiet moments when we really dig into Charles’ character.

Foxx is unstoppable in these scenes, having mastered the walk, the finger movements, the jiving patter. The pain.

Asking for more might be asking for perfection.