The late great Ray Charles remains one of America’s finest musicians. In 2008 Rolling Stone magazine listed Charles as the 2nd greatest singer of all time, behind Aretha Franklin. During his long career he sold millions of records, won tons of awards and his influence is still felt to this day. When you are tasked with creating a biopic of someone such as Ray Charles the danger is of creating a film that doesn’t do justice to the individual’s life story. Back in 2004, Taylor Hackford took on the responsibility of making a film that would reflect the life of Ray Charles, having spent years trying to find financing to get the project off the ground.
Ray covers around three decades in the life of Ray Charles with events told out of sequence. We have one narrative of the unknown Charles trying to make his way in the music world despite his peers and other onlookers being dismayed at the idea a blind man will have anything to offer. As we watch Charles’ journey from unknown to megastar, the film also throws in a second narrative, unravelling one layer at a time to depict Charles’ childhood of poverty and struggle alongside his fiercely strong mother and his brother. Of Charles’ career, we are given insights into his musical genius, blending a myriad of genres despite protestations from listeners. We are also given a window into his personal life, to his marriage to Della and to the comforts he partakes of on the road from heavy drug use to liaisons with other women. The narrative runs until around the 1970s so it’s very much how Charles became famous and his struggles living with the many demons from his past.
The good news is that Hackford has directed a biopic that helps to realises Ray Charles’ life on the big screen. A great cast can be found throughout the film, with painfully emotive turns from Kerry Washington as Charles’ wife, Della, and Regina King as Margie Hendriks, one of Charles’ backing singers and lovers. However, it is Jamie Foxx who is unsurprisingly the star of the show here. Ray saw Foxx bag the Oscar for Best Actor for his flawless portrayal of Ray Charles and it was thoroughly deserved. The film demonstrates Charles’ impeccable talent at the piano, his great voice and overall style, but it doesn’t shirk from his mistakes and the often damaging impact on family and friends of his pursuit for glory. A talented man he unquestionably is but he is not a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination. There are some inaccuracies in the film and it would have been great to have been brought completely up to date with Charles’ story but what’s here is endlessly entertaining and often gritty. Charles collaborated on the film but, sadly, died from liver disease before being able to take in the completed project. You like to think he would have been proud of the outcome and, in particular, Foxx’s portrayal of him.
Verdict: A well-acted and moving biopic of Ray Charles’ life with Foxx’s depiction being perfection itself.