Largely on the strength of his rich, funny, multi-dimensional performance in Michael Mann's underrated Ali, Jamie Foxx made the quantum leap from Booty Call cut-up to acclaimed dramatic actor. In the Ray Charles biography Ray, Foxx again plays a smack addict in another epic biopic about a legendary black icon, but otherwise, the films couldn't be more different. Where Mann's subtle, restrained Ali shirks clichés and dramatic showboating at every turn, Ray drinks lustily from a goblet of hackneyed show-biz and triumph-over-adversity conventions, presenting Charles' remarkable life story as a series of screaming headlines and stunning triumphs. It's the sort of musical biography where studio rats are perpetually grinning euphorically at each other, convinced that the sounds coming out of their mixing boards will change popular music forever. And, since Foxx's Ray Charles changes music and/or society irrevocably roughly every 15 to 20 minutes, they've got a lot of reasons to smile conspiratorially. If it's true that every cliché contains elements of truth, then Ray ranks as one of the most truthful films of all time.
Flashing back intermittently to dream-like scenes from Charles' hardscrabble rural childhood, Ray chronicles the singer's rise from sideman and Chitlin Circuit fixture to innovator, icon, and international superstar. Yet even as Charles ascends to the heights of the musical and cultural elite, he remains hobbled by heroin addiction and compulsive womanizing, a prisoner to his own insatiable needs. Though dramatically facile and shallow as social history, Ray scores as a feast for the senses, full of earthy sensuality, vivid colors, and transcendent music. Foxx captures Charles' rascally humor and gargantuan appetites, but as Ray nears its abrupt ending, it veers into camp silliness, complete with a psychedelic freak-out withdrawal sequence straight out of a Roger Corman LSD epic. Most glossy big-screen biopics about disabled superstars transform their subjects into cardboard saints. Ray isn't any more distinguished for turning Charles into a cardboard sinner.