Light <I>Ray</I>: Gentleman sings the blues

As happened with Halle Berry and Charlize Theron, a good actor who's generally been undervalued as a lightweight finally gives a performance that can't be ignored in Ray. Playing both the piano (though not on the soundtrack) and the disability card (blindness) won't hurt Jamie Foxx's Oscar chances.

For those who remember him only from Pepsi commercials ("Uh-huh!") or as a geezer who had hits in the Stone Age, Ray Charles was one of the seminal musical influences of the 20th century. If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, Ray was its father. He fused blues, jazz, and gospel music– and later added country to the mix.

Born in Georgia in 1930 but raised in Florida, Ray Charles Robinson dropped his last name to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. The movie picks up his life in 1948 when he moves to Seattle for a gig.

There are copious flashbacks to his childhood when young Ray (C.J. Sanders) lost his sight at the age of seven after his younger brother died on his watch. The film implies a connection– a guilty reaction, perhaps– but he suffered from glaucoma and had been losing his vision gradually for years.

Ray's sharecropper mother (Sharon Warren in a powerful performance) is a great life coach, teaching Ray to use his other senses and to be strong and independent, never a "cripple," then sending him away to school when she has nothing left to teach him.

The Seattle gig leads to Ray's first recording contract, on tiny Swingtime Records, and a tour with Lowell Fulson's (Chris Thomas King) band. It's while touring that Ray picks up his bad habits– an addiction to heroin and the multiple-families concept his father had practiced.

Daddy had three families, but Ray's satisfied with two, one at home and one on the road. He marries Della Bea (Kerry Washington) in Houston and has an affair with backup singer Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis). When Ray creates the Raelettes as a backup trio, Margie Hendricks (Regina King) replaces Mary Ann in his bed, but she wants to replace Della Bea as well, and that's not going to happen.

Segments of the film are built around specific songs, a combination of original recordings and new versions cut by Charles before his death earlier this year. Most work well enough, but accompanying the breakup with Hendricks with "Hit the Road Jack" is a little too cute.

Ray deals with a lot of issues– death, heroin addiction, racism, blindness, adultery– but rarely feels very heavy for long. In that sense, it's not as hard-hitting as Lady Sings the Blues. The period setting and the music help take the edge off, but James L. White's screenplay finds unexpected humor in serious situations without trivializing them, and there are far fewer villains than in Ray's real life.

It's long been rumored that Taylor Hackford, as producer, directed more of La Bamba than Luis Valdez, who was credited. His direction of Ray would seem to confirm that, because the films have a similar feel in addition to their common interest in pop music of the '50s by minority performers. Scenes involving the brother's death recall the precursors of the plane crash in La Bamba.

Those of us who love the music of the period will appreciate the wealth of trivia about how Ray Charles found his own sound and how he played hardball when he changed labels until he had "a better deal than Sinatra gets." (This was before Sinatra started his own label to give himself a still better deal.)

Ray is a pretty traditional Hollywood biopic of a music figure, more so than De-Lovely, which took risks and lost. It's an entertainment that celebrates the music while giving some historical background on the person who created it.

As for Jamie Foxx, he should henceforth be known as "the other Ray Charles." Uh-huh!