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WHEN RAY Charles died in June, he had ascended to the most rarefied level of fame; no longer merely a celebrity, he had become an institution. There is no doubt that he deserved this status, or that he enjoyed it, but universal esteem is not always a blessing for an artiste. Some of Charles's music has become so familiar that we risk growing deaf to the audacity and innovation that made it great in the first place. "Hit the Road Jack" crackles with high-spirited sexual drama.

In "Ray," the new film biography directed by Taylor Hackford, some of that drama is restored, and you hear some of Charles's best music. In the movie's account, "Hit the Road Jack" emerges almost spontaneously from a hotel-room lovers' quarrel between Ray (Jamie Foxx) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King), one of his backup singers. This episode may be apocryphal, and is no doubt embellished, but "Ray" succeeds, to an unusual extent for a movie of this kind, in presenting a vivid, convincing portrait of an artiste.

If it falls into some of the lacquered conventions, it also has some of the sly candour that makes Charles's memoir, `Brother Ray' (written with David Ritz), such a delight to read. And though "Ray" occasionally strays into sentimentality and facile psychologising, Hackford and James L. White, the screenwriter, have hit upon an insight that eludes most filmmakers who try to put the lives of artistes on screen, namely that the real story lies in the art itself.

So while "Ray" occasionally flashes back to Charles's childhood in Florida, recounting the twin traumas of his younger brother's death and his own blindness (the result of glaucoma), and while it does not shy away from his womanising or his heroin addiction, its main concern is his music.

"Ray" lets us appreciate Charles's genius and eclecticism in a way that no CD boxed set could. This is partly a result of Hackford's judiciousness and generosity, and the deft way he weaves Charles's recordings through the behind-the-scenes set pieces that fill out the narrative. But what makes "Ray" such a satisfying picture, in spite of some shortcomings and compromises, is Foxx's inventive, intuitive, and supremely intelligent performance.

He has mastered Charles's leg-swinging gait, his open-mouthed smile and the tilt of his head, as well as the speaking style that could sometimes sound like a form of scat singing. But there is much more than mimicry at work here. Foxx has displayed an intriguing blend of quick-wittedness, bravado and sensitivity, and his recognition of those qualities in Ray Charles is the key to his performance.

Apart from the flashbacks to Charles's youth in rural north Florida (where he was born Ray Robinson in 1930), the film concentrates on a two-decade span — roughly from the late 1940s until the mid-60s — during which he made his way from rough-and-tumble clubs onto the top of the pop and R&B charts.

Musical genius that he was, Ray Charles was also a sharp businessman. His experience taught him to be tough, ruthless and suspicious of everyone, traits that Foxx presents without apology.

One of the insidious aspects of celebrity biographies is their tendency to become disingenuous fables about the pathology of fame, in which the price of success is reckoned in broken relationships, substance abuse and self-destructive behaviour. Spectacles of unhappy genius, perhaps, are meant to make the rest of us feel justified in our mediocrity. "Ray" does not entirely avoid this kind of moralism.

Charles turns on some of his most loyal band-mates and employees, including his steadfast driver and road manager, Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell). Ray's relationships with Margie, with his wife, Bea (Kerry Washington), and with another singer, named Mary Ann (Aunjanue Ellis), all include their share of tears and melodramatic fights. (All three actresses hold their own in underwritten roles). His drug habit and his workaholism take their inevitable toll.

But if this kind of trouble is the price of artistic achievement, the movie makes clear, that Charles paid it ungrudgingly, even joyfully. "Ray" is the story of a man surmounting the obstacles of racism and disability, but for the most part it steers clear of easy uplift or self-congratulation. Hackford trusts his material and loves his subject, too much to puff the man up with hagiography.

"Ray" while not a great movie, is a very good movie about greatness, in which celebrating the achievement of one major artiste becomes the occasion for the emergence of another. I'm speaking of Ray Charles and Jamie Foxx, of course, though at this point I'm not entirely sure I can tell them apart. — NYT


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