"The real star of the film is the music - and there's lots of it."

"When I walk out that door, I walk out alone in the dark," says Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in the most revealing part of Taylor Hackford's film biography. Charles was blind since childhood, held back by racism and tormented by nightmares of his younger brother's death. He was also an icon of modern music, and one of the most influential and talented men of the last century.

In other words, there's a lot of ground to cover.

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The film gallops through Ray's progress, from seedy bars in Seattle to his stunning success as a solo artist, from his evolution as a singer who could imitate others but could find no voice of his own to a man who invented his own sound, fusing gospel, blues and country and changing music forever. To hurry the audience through these heady events, the old technique of flashing the names of venues and cocktail bars is used, and while it might be a bit retro, it works well in evoking the Fifties and Sixties.

However, the real star of the film is the music - and there's lots of it. Hackford's previous experience with biopics of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Richie Valens really pays off. The concert sequences convey all the joy in Ray Charles music, especially the scene when Ray improvises What'd I Say on the spot, due to contractual obligations. We also get to see the evolution of seminal hits, I Got A Woman and Hit The Road Jack, both inspired by current loves, through to Ray's reinvention of country with I Can't Stop Loving You.

His addictions - women and heroin - are the main focus of the narrative, interrupted by childhood flashbacks to explain that he needed women to remember his mother and heroin to forget his brother. Foxx, fresh from stealing Collateral from Tom Cruise, is an eerily accurate Ray, on and off stage. It's a difficult role for an actor, in that Ray was a man who possessed great charm and deliberately presented a soft-spoken, easy-going demeanour as a defence. Foxx rises admirably to this challenge, only allowing Ray's controlled facade to slip occasionally. The audience will have to read between the lines of his remarkably subtle performance.

Traditionally, music biographies are a mixed bag, from the quasi-mystical - Oliver Stone's laughably dour The Doors - to Kevin Spacey's all-singin', all-dancin' [film]Beyond The Sea[/film], which seemed more suitable for the stage. Hackford follows the route he's gone down before on La Bamba and Great Balls Of Fire, simply tell the story without directorial grandstanding. It's a wise choice. You simply can't steal Ray Charles's thunder.

As usual in any biography, there are sections that might have been given more attention. Ray's stand on civil rights and the stories of those he left behind are barely touched upon. But how can a film ever be more than a precis for genius and how could Ray hope to explain Ray Charles?

It can't and it couldn't. But this film is a damn good starting point.

Reviewed on: 21 Jan 2005
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Josh Morrall ****1/2

Director: Taylor Hackford

Writer: James L White

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Sharon Warren, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis, C J Sanders, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff, Larenz Tate

Year: 2004

Runtime: 152 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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