Some time ago I spent a year playing border collie to a herd of musicians and other performers. What I learned that year is that performers draw their energy from the audience, give it all back in their performance, and then do their best to renew themselves the rest of the time by sucking the life out of those around them, for example their families and other loved ones. It isn't willful, it isn't mean or cruel - not deliberately - it's just the way performers are. And it's why they're so great on stage. Everything they carry inside them - their talent, and, if we're lucky, their genius - is given to us in the audience. It's a great gift, and we shouldn't demean it by wishing that they could have better relationships, be more mature, more conventionally healthy people. We need to accept them as they are, but resolve not to get involved with them.
Taylor Hackford's new film "Ray," about the first twenty years of Ray Charles's career (the late forties to the late sixties, with flashbacks to his childhood), is a classic portrait of a great performer. And Jamie Foxx, who plays Charles, has wrapped himself so thoroughly in the cloak of the man that we forget an actor is somewhere inside, impersonating him. It is another example of the breadth of Foxx's acting range, added to his work as 'Bundini' in "Ali" and Max the cab driver in "Collateral."
The film gives us some defining moments in Charles's early life, to go with the career that started in Seattle in 1948, playing piano at a cheap joint. He went blind at age seven (from glaucoma), he carries guilt at the death of his younger brother, and his mother insisted that he not think of himself as a cripple, a beggar, someone disabled in any way. Foxx takes off from that, making his Charles deceptively accommodating, with charm and sexiness that conceal a drive to be the best, the richest, the most popular. He meets and marries Della Bea (Kerry Washington), but on the road he has successive lovers. The film, with a screenplay by James L. White from a story by him and Hackford, does not spare him. His heroin addiction is very much present, as is his ease in switching from Atlantic Records, which made him a star, to a bigger label for more money.
But the heart of the film is the music. All of it is Charles's own recordings, lip-synched perfectly by Foxx, who by the way knows how to play the piano and does justice to Charles's keyboard style. And the songs are great. Everything from those first twenty years is here; we sit in the theatre rocking with him on hit after hit. That classic stride bass, the pumping beat, the gospel chord changes, the gravelly voice with the smile and the sex oozing out of it. And watching the movie was the first time I could understand what Charles was thinking when he went country with strings. It finally made sense.
Still, I have some reservations about "Ray" as a film. The dialogue is formulaic, even clichéd; there is a sameness to successive scenes that, while no doubt accurate, flattens the impact of the film. No one seems to be having anything like a good time except for Charles himself, and he's having fun only sometimes. So we come out of the theatre in love with the music, but not with the movie. Even Foxx's extraordinary performance doesn't quite pull it together or give it the power we want. Maybe that's asking too much - asking to see another film, about another person instead of the real-life Ray Charles. But it's what I did hope for.