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Ray

The Globe and Mail

Ray
**1/2
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Written by Taylor Hackford and James L. White
Starring Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington
Classification: 14A

If Ashlee Simpson is looking for lessons in lip-synching, she should watch the new biographical film, Ray. First tip: Start with great material. The late Ray Charles was one of the first soul singers, applying the power of gospel to the pangs of earthly love, and he rattles and shakes, cries with joy and moans with sorrow.

Second tip: Absorb that great material and convey every emotional nuance behind it. Jamie Foxx is riding into a best-actor Oscar campaign partly on the strength of Ray Charles's music and his impeccable impersonation of the musician. Foxx mouths and weaves along with the words. He has developed the slight hesitation in his voice and his habit of speaking in short bursts.

When Ray is away from his piano -- seducing, lying, jiving with his musicians, wheedling with his record company, or sticking a needle in his arm -- Foxx conveys the contradictions of a man raised up by his drive and talent and burdened by his devils.

The music is inspired and the cast terrifically committed, but Ray is still a long way from being a good movie. Taylor Hackford, the creator of overwrought banalities such as Proof of Life and An Officer and a Gentleman, employs a paint-by-numbers biopic formula, padded out with interminable flurries of montages. Ray rambles on for two hours and 40 minutes, mining repetitive episodes like a TV miniseries.

There's the early struggle: Ray Charles Robinson, a 21-year-old blind orphan riding the bus from Florida to Seattle to join the burgeoning jazz scene there. After his initial exploitation by his earthy landlady and cheating band mates, he strikes out on his own. Then come the years of triumph. Ray moves to Harlem, where comically improbable white dudes from Atlantic records, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun (played by Richard Schiff and Curtis Armstrong), nourish Charles's emerging talent. Once he gets past the impediment of being too good a mimic (Charles initially coasted on his Nat King Cole imitation) and discovers the love of a good woman, Dela Bea (the marvellous Kerry Washington), Ray Charles finds his own marinated-in-tobacco-and-heroin voice and becomes a star. Then there are the predictable setbacks: the love affairs, the cruelty to old friends and the increasing drug dependency. Finally, around the second hour, he begins to see the light.

As a counterpoint to this overfamiliar melody, Hackford and co-writer James L. White employ a borderline ludicrous use of flashbacks to recreate the singer's early childhood traumas. Having stood by while his younger brother George died in a freak drowning, young Ray is consumed with guilt, and shortly after, overcome by blindness.

His tiny, scrappy, sharecropper mother (Sharon Warren) pops up in more flashbacks to give him words of helpful advice: "Don't ever let nobody treat you like a cripple!" At other moments, the flashbacks invade like Freddie Krueger-inspired night terrors, as Ray has visions of blood-filled washtubs, hands grasping out of his suitcase. The worst come during his attempts to quit heroin cold turkey, when the movie starts making reference to the hyped-up hallucinations of Requiem for a Dream before easing into a hokey Freudian resolution.

Still, you'd be a fool to miss Ray, just for the minute or half minute here and there when the story, performance and especially music converge into something wonderful. For all Hackford's shortcomings, he loves the early rock era, as he showed in La Bamba and the 1987 documentary, Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock and Roll. The detailed images of mid-century America, shot with a bleached-out look of old photo books, are handled with affection and care. And the carousing rigours of the black road houses on the "chitlin' circuit" are brought to life.

At its most transporting moments, Ray becomes a kind of soul opera, using Charles's songs to punch home powerful emotional moments: the sorrow-stunned Unchain My Heart as an ode to heroin addiction; the blistering Hit the Road Jack after an angry fight between Charles and his pregnant girlfriend. Hackford reverses the Latin proverb -- here the life seems awfully long and the art kind of short. He loves rock 'n' roll and misses its point: You don't really need 2½ hours to communicate what can be better said in a 2½-minute song.

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