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Comedian Foxx Praised for Oscar Worthy Performance in <i>Ray</i>

  • Alan Silverman

Funny man Jamie Foxx turns in a serious performance that could earn him an Oscar nomination, starring in a film biography of musical genius Ray Charles. Alan Silverman has a look at Ray.

The sounds of Ray Charles punctuated the last half of the twentieth century and turned on the world to soul music. Ray tells his story: how, as boy growing up in rural Florida Ray Charles Robinson loses his sight to glaucoma.

In a world of touch and sound, Ray begins to hear and feel music: from the country songs on the radio to the nearby honky tonk saloon where the old piano man lets the young boy try his hands on the keyboard.

Leaving Florida as a young man, Ray finds work in blues clubs, eventually gets "discovered" and starts making records.

The rest, as they say, is history; but to tell his story, Jamie Foxx had to get the approval of Ray Charles himself. Foxx describes their first meeting, about two years ago, at Charles' recording studio in Los Angeles.

"Ray came in and grabbed my hands and says 'Yes, these are strong fingers.' Then we went straight to the piano," Foxx recalls. "He said 'If you can play the blues, you can do anything.' So we started singing the blues back and forth to each other. So he's playing this phrase and I hit the wrong note and he said 'Why would you hit that? Why would you do that, man? Why?.' I said 'I don't know.' He said 'It's right underneath your fingers. The notes are right underneath your fingers.' So I used that as a metaphor for the whole movie: that life is notes underneath our fingers. We just have to take the time to find out which notes to play in order to get our music out there."

A classically trained pianist, Foxx says it was important to the portrayal that he was not just acting when he sat down to the piano.

"You've seen biographical pictures about music before and it looks hokey; so we would get in the mindset that we actually have a gig tomorrow. I would be in the room all night for hours getting ready for this gig that I'm playing," explains Foxx. "We're doing 'Let The Good Times Roll' and I wanted to make sure we had every nuance of the performance down. We had a real band from New Orleans that we would even be playing with between takes. To nail it was fun [and] to hear people who were working at the theater when Ray Charles was there say "that was really how it went" . . . to see them sit down and really get caught up in the concert once you get that feeling . . . the music makes you want to sing it. Those are great songs."

But Foxx does not sing them; he skillfully lip-syncs to the actual vintage Ray Charles studio sessions and concert recordings.

"Well, I had to have Ray Charles singing. These are masterpieces," explains director Taylor Hackford, who worked with Charles for 15 years to bring the story to the screen, says there was never a question about using anything but the real music.

"I was trying to make a different kind of musical: not a singing, dancing musical, but a piece that talks about life impacting art," he says. "The fact is that I believe Ray Charles's life and the things he went through in his life are the reasons that he was such a genius. I asked him "Ray, do you think you would be where you are today and the artist you are today if you hadn't gone blind?" He said "That's a really good question and I don't know. Probably not." So there are 35 songs in this film and you have to tell the story with Ray Charles's music. That's who the man was. That's what he defined himself as."

It is also a story of a demanding perfectionist, an unfaithful husband and a heroin addict; and Hackford says those darker sides also had to be in the film.

"The great gift Ray Charles gave to me was he said 'Taylor, I'm no angel and I don't have to be depicted that way. Just tell the truth,' the director says.

Ray Charles died in June of 2004, just as production on the film was nearly finished; and Jamie Foxx believes he was pleased by how it came out.

"He was walking into the sunset: this movie took 15 years to get it together [and] he viewed the movie in his own way before he passed," Foxx says. "He got his kids together before he passed. He did all the different things that we would want to do if we were leaving . . . he did all of those things in the right way."

Ray also features Kerry Washington as Bea, the woman he married; and Regina King plays Margie Hendrix, lead singer of the Raelets and his longtime lover.

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