Watching Jamie Foxx bob and weave over a keyboard, it's easy to forget he's not the real Ray Charles. Blinded by eye prosthetics and relying on his own musical abilities, he is remarkably realistic in a difficult role.
Director/writer Taylor Hackford also has a difficult challenge. Finding a balance between exposing the truth and sugarcoating the script is especially tricky when the subject is a legend as talented and troubled as this musical genius. But enjoy it or not, this biopic shies away from the syrup and gives a technically outstanding look into the life of Ray.
Ray Charles was born poor in the Deep South. But despite his obvious obstacle he has two strong positives in his life.
First is his single mother. Tiny but gutsy, Aretha (Sharon Warren) does laundry to provide for her two boys, Ray (C.J. Sanders) and George (Terrone Bell). When Ray begins losing his sight at age 7, she isn't one to let him wallow in pity. Instead she forces him to find his way in the looming darkness rather than letting it cripple his life.
Second is his love of music. As a child, he is drawn to it. Slipping into the backroom of a local grocey store, he eagerly fingers the worn keys of an old piano with the help of an equally aged man. Later, when his mother dies, it is music that becomes his lifeblood.
But his troubles aren't isolated to his childhood. As a young musician in Seattle, he is abused sexually and financially. His blindness also often leaves him ostracized by those who want to use his abilities but refuse to include him otherwise. The exploitation provides the determination to not rely on anyone else. Ray also begins to develop peculiar lifelong suspicions and self-preservation tactics.
His resolve to be his own champion leads to musical success far beyond any expectations. But with it Ray develops two other great loves---drugs and women.
Depicted in the film with full paraphernalia, Ray initially dabbles in drugs like marijuana to ease his nerves, cope with emotional pains and finally to deal with the pressures of fame. But the habit eventually leads to a full-fledged heroine addiction. Firmly believing his drug use affects no one but himself, Ray fails to see the cost his junkie habit exacts on his family and others. Fortunately, when the ugly consequences come, the movie doesn't shy away from showing them.
However, the script skips around the moral implications of Ray's womanizing. Although his wife (Kerry Washington) sticks by him, she is battered emotionally by his infidelity. The singers (Aunjanue Ellis, Regina King) who play his mistresses don't fare any better. Enticed by beautiful women in scenes of sensuality, the Ray portrayed in this film seems to feel justified in pandering to his own sexual appetites.
While the strong anti-drug message is hard-hitting, the attitude toward women (and the scenes of back and chest nudity) will likely leave many parents feeling blue about sharing this amazing life story of an incredible performer with their own aspiring musicians.