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Out of sight 

Ray shines a light on R&B legend

Like player pianos, musical biopics rely on rote repertoires of artists' hit songs, interspersed with bits of gossip worthy of "Behind the Music." Ray, Taylor Hackford's rendition of the life and career of Ray Charles, brings vitality to the formula: The thrilling musical performances inform Charles' life and character, and vice versa.

Made with the cooperation of Charles' family (the singer reportedly attended an early cut a month before his death from liver cancer June 10), Ray proves bracingly earthy and candid, with none of the soft edges of an "authorized" biography. Ray presents the groundbreaking R&B singer in flesh and blood, not gold and platinum, and argues that Charles' steely determination fed both his musical achievements and personality flaws.

Charles lost his eyesight to glaucoma at age 6, but Ray's early scenes establish him not as a martyr to his disability but an ambitious young bluesman (Jamie Foxx) with tricks up his sleeve. When a racist cop denies him bus passage from Florida to his first musical break in Seattle, Charles wins VIP treatment by claiming to have lost his eyes at Normandy.

Despite his blindness and Southern roots, Charles sidles into the Seattle club scene like a born hepcat. Ray portrays the musician as a sexual being early on: He gets free rent from his band manager/landlady in exchange for bedroom services, and Foxx amusingly captures Ray's reluctance at the arrangement. He's nobody's fool, though. As his career takes off, he breaks with the partners who tried to exploit his sightlessness.

"Never let nobody or nothing turn you into no cripple," orders Charles' mother, and he strives to prove himself the equal of sighted musicians. Ray finds the humor when Charles seduces groupies better than his bandmates, but hits an ominous note when he insists on trying heroin with the other users. It's as if for the young Charles, equal treatment means not only the same rights but the same vices as the other musicians. (Atlanta actor Thomas Byrd has a small but pivotal role as the one who gives Charles his first fix.)

Ray's sizzling musical numbers, expertly lip-synched to the singer's original recordings, put the audience within arm's reach of Charles' creative process. Charles springs the rollicking "What I'd Say" on his band without warning during a ballroom gig, and when he improvises the moaning, call-and-response with his back-up singers, the Raelettes, the scene has the immediacy of a live performance.

Charles' wife, Bea (Kerry Washington), becomes a kind of muse, inspiring his groundbreaking inclusion of gospel-style singing in "the devil's own" music. His relationship problems become fodder for his compositions as well. When Charles beds his lady singers, he gives them sizzling solos, and "Night Time (Is the Right Time)" sounds like a mating call you'd damn well better answer. At the height of an argument with his pregnant mistress (Regina King), he insists they rehearse "Hit the Road, Jack," and she pours her fury into her voice.

At first, Foxx's performances seems simply a triumph of mimicry, given that Charles had so many familiar traits. He captures how, in conversation, Charles swayed his head from side to side like a sonar dish and in performance would rock on the piano stool so vigorously, it's as if only the keyboard kept him from flying into space.

But like James L. White's script, Foxx looks beneath Charles' jolly, avuncular persona. With record executives, he quakes with self-deprecating humor, then turns into a hardball negotiator. Foxx makes Charles not just a chronically unfaithful husband, but a genuinely tender lover with wife and mistresses alike. And Charles clings so fiercely to the idea of his own strength that he fails to recognize his own drug addiction.

Ray's driving music and palpable atmosphere are so rich, they overwhelm the film's secondary characters. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman brings out such detailed textures in the film's locations, you can practically smell the windowless recording studios and seedy nightclubs with their tobacco-colored walls. The muted earth tones in Charles' musical venues contrast sharply with the bright, "hot" colors from his impoverished childhood in rural north Florida. It stands to reason that Charles would be haunted by the only sights he ever saw, and images like the neighborhood bottle-tree have hues of surreal clarity.

But Ray uses a childhood trauma to explain away Charles' drug problem in the too-tidy conclusion. At about two-and-a-half hours, Ray loses momentum in the last 30 minutes and occasionally trades in cliches, like the requisite montage of hit singles moving up the Billboard charts.

More often, though, Ray dramatizes intriguing footnotes from Charles' personal legend, like how he earned a lifetime ban from the state of Georgia for boycotting segregated clubs -- a restriction lifted in 1979 when "Georgia on My Mind" was named the state song. Many biopics reveal musical stars to be self-destructive and unworthy of their talents, but Ray proves exceptional. In both his gifts and his flaws, Ray Charles becomes more intriguing the more deeply you look and the harder you listen.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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