(Taylor Hackford, USA, 2004)


When it comes to fiction films, people both within and without the industry endlessly argue over whether a hero needs to be likable. For the makers of biopics, this becomes a particularly delicate question.

Ray Charles is, by any estimation, an awesome figure in the history of popular music. But was he really a nice guy, likable enough to fill the shoes of a Hollywood hero? Or was he more like the Raging Bull, Jake La Motta – driven, tormented, addicted, a source of pain for those around him?

Charles, as incarnated with eerie accuracy by Jamie Foxx in this intense and colourful biopic, is no teddy bear. He spends most of his young adult life – the film takes us from his career beginnings in the 1940s to the mid 1960s – hooked on heroin. He cheats on his sweet, devoted wife, Bea (Kerry Washington), with his unofficial 'second wife' on the road, Regina (Margie Hendricks) – after dumping another girlfriend in the band, Aunjanue (Mary Ann Fisher). He is disloyal to his long-serving manager, Jeff (Clifton Powell), the moment he is pampered by a newcomer, Joe (Harry Lennix).

All that Charles really has going for him, at least in Hollywood feel-good terms, is that he dealt with his blindness with great courage and tenacity, that he fought – albeit belatedly – against Jim Crow segregation, and that he finally quit the junk. A more contentious issue among music fans – whether or not Charles effectively sold out and became increasingly middle-of-the-road in he course of his career – is glossed over by Ray.

The release of this film coincides with a rash of biopics of various sorts, from the historical epic Alexander (2004) to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), about Howard Hughes. Inevitably, this trend is accompanied by journalistic musings about the dire limitations of the biopic form – how it condenses, simplifies and often outrightly distorts the facts of a person's life. Charles, for instance, had another wife before Bea – and his twelve children came from a total of seven women.

But what do we really expect from a biopic? Of course, what a film like Ray offers is less a summary than a stylisation of its subject's life. In fact, it is possible to prefer those biopics (like the Ike and Tina Turner story, What's Love Got to Do With It? [1993]) which are the most extremely stylised – shaped like a soap opera or a pop song – over the piecemeal, doggedly realistic portraits.

In this light, the best aspect of Ray – which is the finest hour in the generally unimpressive career of its director, Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982) – is its vivid flashes of black musical culture, whether in down-home rural settings or on stage. And a scene that some find risible – when an argument between Ray and Margie morphs into a run-through of "Hit the Road, Jack" – indicates that this entertaining biopic may have played even better as a full-out musical.

MORE music films: The Thing Called Love, Pure Country

© Adrian Martin January 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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