X-Ray spex

Movie biopics are risky affairs. In most instances, you’ve got to like the subject if you’re going to like the movie. If, for example, you think Jackson Pollock’s paintings could be done by a three year old with finger-paints, chances are you won’t appreciate “Pollock.” And if, like me, you’ve never been a fan of Ray Charles, it’s going to be an uphill battle for you to enjoy “Ray.”

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to fault “Ray” because I don’t like Ray Charles. For those who love Charles’ music, “Ray” is the uncompromising story of flawed human being and a musical genius. For those who don’t, it’s going to be hard getting past the man’s many faults to understand why he’s so revered.

Jamie Foxx is the key to the film’s success. Ever since Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” Jamie Foxx has given one knockout performance after another. When I saw him as cocky quarterback Willie Beamen in “Any Given Sunday” I was impressed, but a little worried it was a one-off deal. With “Collateral” earlier in the year and now “Ray,” Foxx has proven he’s one of the best actors working today. His transformation into Ray Charles is almost eerie. When Ray touches the fingers and toes of his newborn son as he holds him, Foxx embodies the way Charles would smile and rock back and forth when he was overjoyed. It’s as if we’re watching a home movie.

The plot of “Ray” takes us through most of Charles’ life, from losing his sight at seven through the struggle to find his own sound to becoming an icon. While the early part of the film centers on Charles’ struggle to be taken seriously as a musician despite his handicap, the latter part deals more with his excesses, the two biggest being women and heroin. The portrait of Charles that “Ray” paints isn’t necessarily a pretty one. He often comes off as greedy, selfish and cold-blooded, and while we understand how he might have gotten that way, he’s still difficult to like.

If you love Charles’s music, the art he created can help forgive his sins. Its no secret beauty often comes from pain, and Ray’s life was full of pain. For nonbelievers, there is less chance you’ll let the man’s many mistakes slide. Talent is no excuse for being a monster – something Charles only narrowly avoids becoming.

For fans of the man’s music, “Ray” will be a revelation. It is wonderfully well made and, in its unflinching portrayal of Ray’s demons, honest about its subject. For the rest of us, I’m afraid you may leave the theater disappointed, wishing you could feel that all the pain and wreckage was worth something.