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Review: Foxx outstanding in fine 'Ray'

Ray Charles film biography a gem

By Paul Clinton

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in "Ray."
Taylor Hackford
Jamie Foxx
Ray Charles

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Director Taylor Hackford and star Jamie Foxx hit all the right notes -- from the brightest trebles to the most brooding basses -- in "Ray," a remarkable movie showcasing the symphony of Ray Charles' life.

Foxx doesn't just imitate Charles, he becomes him. His every gesture, movement of his head and spring in his step reflect the musical rhythms and contradictory emotions raging within the deeply complicated singer. Foxx is so perfect that you forget you're watching an actor play Charles -- who's not just a role, but was a living, breathing American icon.

If there's any justice, the performance will earn Foxx an Academy Award nomination.

Charles' rich life was a natural for the big screen -- but it also left the filmmakers the classic problem with film biographies, which is what to include, what to leave out, and how to frame the story. Though the ending feels rushed (the audience is filled in -- via montages -- about the time period between the late '70s and the singer's death earlier this year), overall Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll") and screenwriter James L. White have done an excellent job of condensing Charles' complex life.

The story vividly covers the time period from 1948, when Charles was 17 and just getting started as a professional performer, through 1979, and features frequent flashbacks to Charles' troubled childhood.

Fueled by tragedy

Indeed, it was during these early years when the singer witnessed the accidental drowning of his younger brother George, and lost his sight due to glaucoma.

These flashbacks are especially effective. His mother, played by Sharon Warren -- making her film debut -- gives a terrifically strong performance. And child actor C.J. Sanders does an amazing job playing Charles as a young child. The scenes in which he portrays the boy's encroaching blindness, in particular, are heartbreaking.

Supporting performances -- including Richard Schiff as Jerry Wexler and Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun -- are uniformly excellent.

The double tragedy of losing his brother and going blind fueled Charles' musical ambitions -- and also helped trigger a 20-year addiction to heroin. The film doesn't shy away from scenes of drug abuse; it's brutally honest in its depiction of his fall into, and his struggle out of, addiction. He finally kicked the habit and lived the last 40 years of his life drug free.

All this is expertly acted by Foxx. Charles -- who had a hand in shaping the film -- signed off on the casting of the "Ali" and "Collateral" actor after hearing him play the piano. (Foxx actually has a background playing the instrument and went to college on a music scholarship.)

Excellent performances

The music, sung by Charles himself and amazingly conveyed by the actor, is utterly sublime and it's deeply embedded in the heart of this film. Hackford uses the music -- "I've Got a Woman," "Georgia On My Mind, "Hit The Road Jack," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and many more -- to enrich and drive the story.

Foxx's performance is only the beginning. The entire supporting cast -- also navigating the minefield of portraying real people -- also has perfect pitch: Kerry Washington as Charles' long-suffering wife Della Bea Robinson; Regina King as the talented but doomed mistress, Margie Hendricks; Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records; Richard Schiff as the legendary producer Jerry Wexler; and Larenz Tate as a young Quincy Jones. They're just a few of the performers who make this film leap off the screen.

With "Ray," Hackford has made a film that -- like Charles' music itself -- breaks your heart, makes it brim with joy and ultimately fills it with a deep belief in beauty and salvation.

"Ray" opens nationwide on Friday, October 29, and is rated PG-13.

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