Give the Man an Oscar: Jamie Foxx’s Pitch-Perfect Ray

Taylor Hackford’s Ray , from a screenplay by James L. White, based on a story by Mr. Hackford and Mr. White, turned out to be even better than everyone said it was, and I write this as one who has never regarded the music of Ray Charles as a cultural priority. Not that I wish to strike a pose as some kind of musical elitist; rather, I want to assure readers as indifferent to most music as I am that Ray is eminently worth seeing and hearing for its brilliantly integrated fusion of story and song.

The film expertly dramatizes the personal and professional life of Ray Charles Robinson, who was born on Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga., and died on June 10, 2004, at the age of 73. He dropped the “Robinson” at an early stage of his career because the championship boxer Sugar Ray Robinson had pre-empted the name “Robinson” in the public mind. Blind since the age of 7, Ray Charles had to overcome the additional handicaps of being born poor and African-American in the segregated South.

One would think that Hollywood decision makers would’ve jumped at the chance to film a life story so chock-full of inspirational human-interest themes, including the ever-timely civil-rights struggle. Such was not the case, however. Mr. Hackford, the director, co-writer and co-producer of Ray , met Ray Charles for the first time in 1987 while trying to secure rights to his life story, and their collaboration over the next 15 years left a lasting impression on the filmmaker, as he describes in the production notes: “To really understand Ray Charles, the music is important, but there is so much more to the man. When I first heard the stories of his life, I thought, ‘My God, I never had any idea.’ I did not realize how he came up, how he went blind, how he traveled on a Greyhound bus from Northern Florida to Seattle, how he got off that bus as a blind man on his own, experienced discrimination, addiction and sorrow-and yet found his way to become an incomparable artist, an incredible businessman and an American icon. I thought, ‘This man’s story must be told.’”

Of the man himself, Mr. Hackford observed: “He was a very gracious man, yet also very, tough. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and he was also very, very candid. Of course, he was not an easy person, but nobody that accomplished is easy. Having overcome the monumental obstacles he’d faced in his life, Ray exuded a confidence that can only come from being a self-made man. He was also a perfectionist who demanded total concentration and dedication from others. And it was impossible not to be inspired by him.”

After Mr. Hackford and his co-producer, Stuart Benjamin, secured the rights to Charles’ life, they were surprised to discover such a lack of interest in Hollywood that it would take more than a decade to get the project off the ground. As it turned out, this long delay meant that Charles never lived long enough to see the movie on which he’d labored so tirelessly.

On the more positive side, an earlier green light on the project might have meant that Jamie Foxx would not have been considered for the part of the famous musician. And let’s make no bones about it: Mr. Foxx comes as close to reincarnating Ray Charles as any mere mortal could be expected to come. After all, who could have thought in advance that Mr. Foxx, in addition to being a skillful stand-up comedian on television and a persuasive actor in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999) and Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) and Collateral (2004), also possessed musical talent of his own, and had learned to play the piano at 3? This ensures a confidence at the keyboard and a facial accompaniment to the vocals that never betray the original.

Indeed, so many things went right with this ambitious production-and particularly with Mr. Foxx’s amazingly and uncannily charismatic performance-that a mere Oscar seems grossly inadequate compensation. The casting and performances of the women alone contribute to the gravitational pull of the increasingly sensual Jamie Foxx–Ray Charles persona. Kerry Washington as Charles’ gospel-singer wife, Della Bea Robinson, is counterposed with the sassy, angry, heroin-addicted singer-temptress, Margie Hendricks (Regina King), and the proud soloist Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis), who walks in and walks out of the Ray Charles orbit; all enhance the film with their womanly graces and their rhythmically compelling voices.

As little Ray’s thin-boned, iron-willed mother, Sharon Warren’s Aretha Robinson provides the tough love needed to lead a blind child away from the path of charity-seeking dependency and onto the open road of brave independence. Mr. Foxx has noted that he was seeking the “nuances” in Charles’ character, though he would seem to have his hands full as a sighted actor conveying the infinite darkness of a blind musician. Mr. Hackford has adjusted his camera setups so that Charles seems to come lurching from out of the darkness, and sets up scenes in which his acute hearing is demonstrated; and the director is not afraid to illustrate Charles’ hallucinatory delusions with lurid sensory shocks.

The heroin addiction that resulted in Charles’ two well-publicized brushes with the law may have given pause to the Hollywood honchos during the decade they hemmed and hawed about the project. Mr. Hackford doesn’t break any new ground in this area, although a couple of hard-edged rehab scenes with Patrick Bauchau’s no-nonsense Dr. Hacker makes the addict’s final recovery seem plausible. After all, his heroic mother had instilled in him a capacity to confront crises head-on.

The drowning of his beloved younger brother in a grotesque accident in a small outdoor tub sets off a cycle of loss, grief, guilt and the onset of blindness that a child might well interpret as divine punishment for his failure to save his brother. I must confess at this point that the death of my brother in a sky-diving accident when he was 28 years old and I was 32 has never left me entirely free of guilt for having survived, and so I completely identified with the dramatization of this fraternal trauma. But where the film scored an emotional knockout for me was the drug-withdrawal-induced hallucinatory images of Ray’s dead brother flying into his loving arms while Ray’s mother, also long dead, beams approval of the brotherly reunion.

Charles’ early experiences as a saloon musician are shown in slightly raucous fashion as occasions for having his blindness exploited, both by his own people and his white employers-to the point that Charles demands his paltry wages be paid in dollar bills so he can count his earnings out with his sightless but tactile fingers. As his earnings multiplied exponentially, Charles relied on a succession of assistants and business managers to protect his interests against the notorious predators in the music business. Sometimes the transition in his fortunes took an ugly turn, most notably when he replaced longtime driver and road manager Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell) and accused him of stealing. The film doesn’t soft-soap this Trumpish change in Charles as the megabucks kept pouring into his coffers. Similarly, his frequent infidelities on the road are viewed through the eyes of his humiliated wife.

The singer’s career-making association with Atlantic Records, personified by the Turkish-American Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and the Jewish-American Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), was later jettisoned for the sake of an irresistible deal with ABC-Paramount; under this new deal, Charles was allowed to keep ownership of his master tapes, a concession that no previous musician-not even Sinatra-had ever been granted by a record company. In the movie, Mr. Ertegun remains friendly with Charles after the break, but Mr. Wexler is completely outraged by Ray’s ingratitude and disloyalty, although in real life Charles eventually returned to Atlantic Records.

Then there are the songs themselves, a few sung by Mr. Foxx but most by Ray Charles-14 of them written by Ray himself, twice as many written by other people but transformed by the artist into personal anthems, most notably Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind,” Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road Jack” (sung in the film by both Charles and Mr. Foxx), and Ahmet Ertegun’s “Mess Around,” which got Charles through a temporary crisis in his recording career. Some reviewers have complained that there aren’t enough completed songs in the mix, but with more than 40 separate pieces of music to create as many separate moods, it’s hard to see what, besides a plotless Ray Charles concert film, would fully satisfy these critics. For my own admittedly tin ear in this realm, the songs were just right, and never too much.

Ray Charles entered the civil-rights struggle in the 60′s and subsequently became an influential force in the cause. His refusal to perform in a segregated hall in Augusta, Ga., led to a lifelong ban in that state; in 1979, the state rescinded that decision with a formal apology to Charles and proclaimed “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song.

Mr. Hackford seems to have slipped off everyone’s directorial radar after his deserved success in 1982 with An Officer and a Gentleman as well as his role as producer of the excellent feature documentary When We Were Kings (1996), on the Ali-Foreman title fight in Zaire. After Ray , however, Mr. Hackford has earned the right to a complete re-evaluation of his work.

Li’l Lili

Claude Miller’s La Petite Lili , from a screenplay by Julien Boivent and Mr. Miller, is ostensibly based-though admittedly loosely-on Chekhov’s The Seagull . But it’s also influenced just as much or more by Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author . In fact, Mr. Miller confesses a divided authorship for La Petite Lili by crediting Mr. Boivent entirely for the second part of the film, with his separate screenplay for Mr. Miller’s anti-Chekhovian “fourth act.”

In an interview, Mr. Miller reveals the genesis of his film: “About ten years ago, I reread The Seagull . Even though the play is set in the 19th century in a world of theater and literature, I found so many similarities with our lives as filmmakers and movie actors that I wanted to do a screen adaptation of it to show how contemporary and universal the characters are. All the characters in the play are the heroes of the film. Nina is Lili (Ludivine Sagnier), who dreamt of becoming an actress. Treplev has become Julien (Robinson Stevenin), an intransigent young filmmaker. Arkadina, his mother, is Mado (Nicole Garcia), a talented actress. Trigorin is Brice (Bernard Giraudeau), a successful director and Mado’s lover. Masha is Jeanne-Marie (Julie Depardieu), who Julien doesn’t realized is in love with him, and Sorin is Simon (Jean-Pierre Marielle).

“So, The Seagull was the starting point for La Petite Lili , except for the fact that I felt that Act IV wouldn’t work with young people in this day and age. My adaptation moves toward a different denouément.”

In addition to variants of Chekhov and Pirandello (and Miller and Boivent), there is a bit of contemporary French-pastry oo-la-la with Ms. Sagnier at the outset of the film. Still, at the very heart of the drama is a curiously judgmental puritanism at work in the treatment of her character. After deserting a young idealist to run off with an older pragmatist and further her film career, Lili is shown regretting her choice when she sees that her ex-lover is now happily married, with a child, and is a successful filmmaker besides. In this new context, Lili is closer to a female Alfie than a character out of Chekhov.

The rest of the French cast is more than adequate, though most of the parallels between Chekhov’s turn-of-the-century worlds of theater and literature and the contemporary world of autobiographical cinema seem forced and arbitrary. But the biggest problem is Lili herself: Having seen Vanessa Redgrave’s Nina onscreen, as well as a Nina-like character that she played in an Ibsen play onstage, I have to say that Ms. Sagnier is decidedly lightweight by comparison. Think of Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron in their prime, or Nicole Berger in Claude Autant-Lara’s Game of Love , or Simon Simone in Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine , and you get a sense of the range of magical possibilities.

There is one startling twist in the film-within-a-film that takes up much of the new fourth act, but you have to be especially alert to catch it. Overall, La Petite Lili is a modest entertainment for hard-core Francophiles like me.