‘Ray’ wrought with tragedy, triumph

Director Taylor Hackford could have easily turned "Ray," a biopic that tells the life story of influential musician Ray Charles, into an exercise in hero worship.

After all, the blind R&B pianist and singer had achieved living-legend status by the time of his death in June. Many of his hits, including "Hit the Road Jack" and "What'd I Say," have proven timeless. His inspiring interpretation of "America, the Beautiful" has become the measuring stick for all other performers brave enough to taking a crack at the classic tune.

Charles even joyously proclaimed Diet Pepsi to be the "the right one" in the popular early 1990s ad campaign, introducing him to a generation of fans whose definition of R&B music probably didn't jive with his own.

However, Hackford and "Ray" co-writer James L. White avoid laying on the schmaltz and go straight for the grit in unwrapping Charles' truly extraordinary life with spellbinding results.

The film's script uses the period from 1946 through the mid-1960s as its primary timeline and doesn't shy away from painting Charles — played with stunning effect by Jamie Foxx — as an equally flawed and improbable protagonist. He's a family man with a seemingly endless supply of mistresses, a respected bandleader and a road-hardened junkie and a man who tells those he loves to do as he says, not as he does.

Foxx, who's earned plenty of Oscar buzz well before the "Ray" saw release, is completely in tune with Charles' subtle Jekyll-and-Hyde nature and plays the dual role to perfection. He seemingly channels Charles' spirit for the duration of the film, even mastering his mannerisms — from the slightly askew head tilt to his unique vocal intonations — which further add credibility to a movie which earned Charles' approval before he died.

However, the outstanding performances from Foxx and his onscreen wife, the magnetic Kerry Washington (playing Della Bea Robinson), are merely the catalysts for what makes "Ray" a must-see movie.

Hackford and White's script utilizes an understated array of tricks to move the plot along, including flashbacks to Charles' childhood in Greenville, Florida, that help reveal his personal demons. The intermittent sequences, which feature riveting feature-film newcomer Sharon Warren as Charles' mother (Aretha Robinson), reveal a childhood wrought with tragedy. The memories only grow stronger and cause Charles to seek out therapy through drugs — a choice that leads to further turmoil.

Charles' music doesn't get left behind, either. Hackford and White use original recordings of Brother Ray's hits and choice obscurities in a manner that only propels the story. Despite the pause in the narrative during the onscreen studio sessions and rowdy nightclub romps, the moments are never forced. They only heighten one's appreciation for the depth of Charles' catalogue — the true reason for the film.

It took "Ray" 15 years to hit the big screen thanks to movie-studio indifference, but it proves itself to be a beautifully done homage that never borders on deification. Even newcomers to Charles — the man or his music — should find it undeniably powerful.

Grade: A