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Through the power of his music


Although biopics devoted to musicians are so numerous they practically constitute a genre all their own, surely none approaches the timeliness of Ray, the film biography of the great Ray Charles, who died only a few short months ago. According to the publicity, Charles himself approved the screenplay and the casting of Jamie Foxx in the title role, a gesture that usually guarantees a work of pious fraudulence in the style of the Cole Porter biography Night and Day, for example, or the cinematic hagiography of The Babe Ruth Story. Despite some apparent oversimplification of the protagonist's history, however, Ray suggests a closer attention to the facts than most biographies authorized by their subject.

The picture deals with something like the first three-quarters of Ray Charles's life, starting with his impoverished childhood in the rigidly segregated South and frequently flashing back to those days in memory throughout the progress of his career. Traumatized by witnessing the death of his younger brother and stricken blind at the age of seven, Ray struggled against cultural, physical, and psychological obstacles that would have overwhelmed someone less determined, less courageous, and less talented.

Aside from those flashbacks, the film proceeds chronologically and rather mechanically through most of Ray Charles's early career, showing him auditioning for a variety of employers, encountering time after time racial prejudice and the dishonesty of club owners and fellow musicians willing to exploit a blind man's vulnerability.

Because of the power of his music and the originality of his voice, however, Ray begins to succeed --- first performing in Seattle, then touring the segregated clubs of the South, known as the "Chitlin Circuit," and gradually appearing in bigger cities on the West Coast. When he breaks out on his own, traveling to New York, he attracts the attention of an independent company, Atlantic Records, and begins to build a national reputation.

Although scant on details showing just how Ray developed both his abilities and the various styles of music he mastered, the picture shows his evolution as an artist playing his special blend of gospel and rhythm and blues, later jazz, then country and western, and ultimately breaking through with his versions of major mainstream pop songs.

His success with his own compositions and those of other songwriters allowed him to cross the lines separating the various categories of contemporary popular music --- he won awards as a rhythm and blues musician, a jazz pianist, and his recordings of well known songs often outsold Frank Sinatra's. His great appeal to both black and white audiences also apparently fueled the animosity of some members of the establishment in the provinces, where the police closed down his concerts for encouraging "racial mixing."

Naturally the movie also deals with some of the negative consequences of fame and fortune, something we all like to believe in --- his flagrant infidelities, his heroin addiction, his tendency to betray the people who help him. His triumph over the addiction, however, provides more of the obligatory uplift of the traditional biopics, the flipside of the unpleasant aspects of his character.

Appearing to assimilate the character of Ray Charles entirely, Jamie Foxx dominates the film, walking with the familiar rolling gait, flashing that huge, captivating grin, attacking the piano and the singing with the ferocious joy and energy of the great original. Although the soundtrack employs the playing and singing of Charles himself, Foxx always seems to be the one making the music, which includes many of the most famous songs from his rich and varied career.

In classic and unimaginative fashion, the filmmakers mark the years by printing the numbers on the screen, and then filming Charles playing his music in a number of venues, frequently changing his approach, style, and subject with that characteristic virtuosity. They never deal with the fascinating questions of just how and why he changed styles so frequently and easily, what factors led him to various major musical decisions, which imparts a curious flatness to the transitions, as if they simply happened.

The major stylistic problem with Ray derives from its editing, which results in an uncertain and unbalanced structure and, for all its great length, an oddly and abruptly truncated ending. The printing of the dates and cities on the screen, and the mere presentation of yet more stages in the artist's development impart a flatly linear and often static quality to the narrative --- time goes by, but the movie stands still.

Despite the power of Foxx's performance and the terrific music, the film looks as if the editors simply couldn't handle all the material and left a good deal of footage on the cutting room floor. Whatever its considerable merits as narrative and entertainment, Ray appears to be concealing another, perhaps even better movie somewhere inside it.

Ray (PG-13), starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell; directed by Taylor Hackford. Cinemark Tinseltown, Little Theatres, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.