The last time Jamie Foxx offered to rock our world, it was in an eerie, cross-dressing come-hither as the mannish Wanda on In Living Color.
A decade and several dramas later, he’s extending the invitation again in Ray. Reject it if, and only if, for some inexplicable reason you can’t stand memories of the late Ray Charles or his music.
Foxx’s inhabitance of Charles is a work of actorly transformation that rockets beyond the weight gain, gender switching or beauty-trapping ugly makeup the Academy holds so dear. And it has to.
The average person probably didn’t know who Jake LaMotta, Brandon Teena and Aileen Wuornos were before the movies about their lives. Whether from his many CDs and live concerts, The Blues Brothers or a Diet Pepsi commercial, most know Charles.
The familiar stagger, speech, sensibility, shakiness and, most of all, smile come to life through Foxx in this outstanding film that would be powerful even if it weren’t posthumous. (Charles was presented with the finished product shortly before his death in June and gave his approval.)
And that OK certainly wasn’t for any sort of glossed-over greatest-hits treatment of his life. As alive as Ray is with the prospect and power of raw musical talent, it’s countered with the inappropriateness of Charles’ extramarital affairs and fear for a person for whom self-destruction through heroin abuse seemed as passively easy as taking a breath.
Intelligence and idiocy clashed within the man, reaching a balance that barely functioned at times. Co-writer and director Taylor Hackford is unafraid to unnerve both with disturbing scenes of Charles’ drug addiction and the pain of watching a 7-year-old child who knows he’s going blind but is unsure of what to do. (Hackford plays with the narrative timeframe, jumping back and forth.)
In turn, he segues almost directly at times from these dark turns into uplifting instances of creative inspiration for classic songs such as “Hit the Road, Jack.” It’s a tricky tone switch, but Hackford pulls it off with authenticity. The nightclub scene in which “What’d I Say” is created is the most inspiring movie-music moment since Almost Famous.
Ray, which easily could have been a one-character show, also takes great care to show how Charles’ inaccessibility shattered the emotions and dreams of those who loved him. Atop Foxx’s work, these performances are added bonuses.
As remembered for Booger from Revenge of the Nerds as Foxx is for Wanda, Curtis Armstrong turns in an endearing performance as Ahmet Ertegun, a record executive who took a chance on Charles. Sharon Warren’s work as Charles’ mother, Aretha, is so focused and intense, it’s unbelievable she has no previous credits.
And countering Foxx’s flash, Clifton Powell’s quiet force as Charles’ manager, Jeff, sets up one of the film’s best confrontations. It’s the brightest spot of the film’s final half-hour, which spins its wheels from a storytelling sense and is no fault of Foxx or his fellow cast members.
With work so immediately great, let’s bypass the buzz and skip directly to the dramatic pause, standing ovation and acceptance speech the orchestra wouldn’t dare cut off.
Deservedly so, Foxx will become only the third Black actor to take home a Best Actor Oscar.