In the biopic Ray, Hackford takes his unique approach to standard genres and adds his love of American music icons that he displayed in his 1987 documentary, Chuck Berry -- Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Now, the word "biopic" screams box-office poison and all but conjures the phrase "TV movie-of-the-week." Yet in Ray, as in just about all of his work, Hackford sees something in the story that others might miss. His passion for his subject matter and characters, and willingness to sincerely address human emotions, make him a better director than some might give him credit for being.
In Ray, Hackford certainly faces the cliches of most tortured-artist biopics -- the impoverished upbringing, the breakthrough success, the philandering, the drug abuse, the career peaks, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit -- yet it still maintains its own unique (Hackfordian?) charm.
Part of the reason is Jamie Foxx, who already has received more than his fair share of praise for his performance as Charles. It's long on gimmickry and only modest in depth, but there is so much effort and flamboyance that he's impossible to ignore. Foxx has the head bobbing, the "country dumb" wit, the wobbling gait, the million-dollar smile, the cooing, gravelly tenor. And, best of all, he possesses Charles' viper-like nature, turning venomous at a snap when threatened, reminding his wife that, when it comes right down it, he's just a man alone in the dark. But Ray Charles was also a heroin junkie, the one thing to which he was truly blind, and Foxx deftly (if not wholly) evokes some of the self-delusion.
Ironically, Ray is the best movie to feature New Orleans without explicitly naming it as a location in the film -- which is sad, considering his performances here in places like the now-defunct Dew Drop Inn. But Hackford, working on a non-epic budget, uses New Orleans' old age to great effect in an epic screaming with period detail. Old New Orleans watering holes such as the Sandpiper Lounge, the Half Moon Lounge as well as the Maple Leaf and now-closed El Matador (owned by Hackford's son, Rio) all provide marvelous settings for a variety of live-music performances. The glorious Saenger and Orpheum theaters provide the more upscale performance moments. Hackford also deserves credit for casting local musicians and actors (Clarence Johnson III, Fahnlohnee Harris and the Rev. Lois Dejean immediately come to mind). If this isn't a walking advertisement for New Orleans as a film-production location, nothing is.
From these sights and sounds come some of the most vibrantly recreated performances in recent memory, and Ray is nothing if not a glorious musical. Cameras roam, pan and focus in and out, whether it's the chitlin' circuit dives that Charles played in his early days with Lowell Fulson (New Orleans' Chris Thomas King) or in more stately settings.
Hackford's supporting-cast choices are equal to that of the more charismatic Foxx. You can see it in the faces: the warm beauty of Kerry Washington as his wife, Bea, and the surprising sexiness of Regina King as his mistress/back-up singer, Margie; the gentle giant-ness of Clifton Powell's Jeff Brown, the nobility of Sharon Warren's Aretha Robinson (Charles' mother). Hackford's obviously going for his own poetic authenticity here, and he's found it in droves. More than anything, their expressionis are maps of agony and ecstasy of lives spent orbiting around a bright, sometimes blinding star. Foxx wouldn't be nearly as convincing if the rest of the cast didn't reflect so brilliantly off him.
Yet the film never fully soars. Using Charles' relationship with his mother as the narrative hook for the film borders on trite, and the connections between his musical inspirations and manifestations feel loose at times. It's never properly explained why, after jumping ship from Atlantic to ABC/Paramount, he downshifted from his R&B/gospel fusion to lush pop music. Like Michael Mann taking on a heavyweight with Ali (in which Foxx co-starred), Taylor Hackford faces the dubious challenge of trying to tackle a giant. It's to his credit that in many ways, he succeeds better than Mann, his stylistic superior. The original title for this film was Unchain My Heart, taken from one Charles' many hits; it's a more fitting title, for Ray beats with a rich heartbeat that can only come from a director who's willing to take his own elusive pulse.