Ray review

The streets of Hollywood are paved with well-intentioned music biopics chronicling hard-won, uplifting rags-to-riches success. In many ways Ray is no different: a loving, sometimes hagiographical portrait of an artist that equates his struggles against disability and addiction with his battles to be recognised as a musical innovator.

So what lifts it above the norm? Well, for one thing, Ray Charles is no normal subject. Born into grinding poverty in 1930 in Albany, Georgia, he was six-years-old when he witnessed his younger brother die in a freak accident; then he lost his sight and, shortly afterwards, his mother too. No wonder he felt he was cursed, his inner demons causing him to chase women, and the dragon, with an almost evangelical zeal.

But Ray was no meek victim - and helmer Taylor Hackford shows he was no fool either. Fearful of being ripped off by unscrupulous managers, Ray beat them at their own game: he insisted on being paid in single dollar bills when he was a struggling musician and, later, became the first recording artist to own his own masters. He was equally ruthless with the ladies, happily cheating on loyal wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington) with a string of backing singers (personified here by Regina King's bunny-boiling firebrand). Not for nothing did he father 12 children in and out of wedlock.

Hackford records the less salubrious aspects of Ray's character without judgement, suggesting they were the price his friends and family paid for being that close to the flame of genius. Writer James L White struggles to convey the specifics of Ray's impact ("No one's ever combined gospel and R&B before!"). Thankfully, the music does it for him: rootsy blues, sizzling soul and blistering funk, funnelled through Jamie Foxx from original albums or bespoke recordings made for the film before Charles's death in June 2004.

But what really makes Ray remarkable is Foxx's career-making, transfigurative performance. The Collateral star doesn't only replicate the late entertainer's physical tics, jazzy lilt and forever rocking head. He also seems to channel his charisma, making us feel we're not just seeing Ray's life on screen, but also some of his essence.

Hackford's reverential biopic may stick to a well-worn stylistic songsheet, but Jamie Foxx's terrific performance lifts it. Ray, meet Oscar.

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