As if to prove there is no originality left in the world, the director Taylor Hackford and the actor Jamie Foxx have come together to make Ray, a modern warts-and-all hagiography about the groundbreaking musician Ray Charles, who mixed blues and jazz with gospel in ways that infuriated people in the 1950s, and who took a stand in the 1960s against segregated "Jim Crow theaters" in the South.
Very little elevates Ray beyond the level of an emotionally unsatisfying big-screen biopic that's maybe a notch better than its made-for-TV counterpart. Even Foxx's impressive acting reinforces the message. His imitation of Charles is flawless: the halting voice and big toothy grin; the way he swings and sways at the piano, which he does long before someone attributes the tick to his heroin addiction; the hulking gait with which he walks, and which no one bothers to attribute to anything.
Unlike, say, Coal Miner's Daughter or Lady Sings the Blues -- two of the more memorable films in this genre -- Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) doesn't begin at the beginning. We see Ray Charles Robinson's childhood unfold in flashbacks, some of them like ghostly after-images, and some longer and more substantial.
These moments are meant to take place in his mind's eye, which is the only working eye he has left beyond age 7, when a degenerative condition claimed his vision. Nine months before he loses his sight he witnesses his brother's drowning. After he goes blind, his mother prepares him for a difficult life by forcing him to find his way around by himself, and she teaches him, "You might be blind, but you ain't stupid." ("I may be ignorant but I ain't stupid" -- Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter).
From there it's the life we all know, partly because we've watched other biopics, and partly because we've heard things about Ray Charles. His talent and charm win him gigs, contracts, audiences, fame, a loving wife, and lots of ladies on the side. His addiction almost causes him to lose it all (but not really). His musical innovations provoke worried looks from people with no imagination and high-fives from people with it. When the drugs catch up with him, he goes through a harrowing cinematic montage of withdrawal and some life-saving psychotherapy (Patrick Bauchau is his shrink).
Of course, Ray treats us to a lot of the maestro's music, most of it impeccably lip-synched by Foxx (who sings a few simpler early tunes himself). And in what must surely be myth-making apocrypha, we see how Charles begat a few of his most famous songs: He improvises "What'd I Say" when he runs out of material with 20 minutes left on stage; he tells his clingy pregnant mistress to "Hit the Road Jack" when she threatens not to be so much fun any more. If this wasn't how these songs really came about, then it is now.