It’s official: Ugly Wanda has left the building. Over the past year, Jamie Foxx, In Living Color clown and Booty Call playa, has slowly shed the stoopidity with surprisingly understated and charismatic roles in Breakin’ All the Rules (whose trailer suggested a Booty Redial) and Collateral (in which he outshone Tom Cruise). But it’s still somewhat shocking to witness his jaw-dropping transformation in Ray: For the bulk of Taylor Hackford’s two-and-a-half-hour biopic, the comedian is Ray Charles. As Hackford chronicles Charles’ life from the beginning of his career in the late ’40s through his mid-’60s heyday, Foxx does more than don the trademark sunglasses and affect a Weeble-esque sway at the piano. His physical resemblance to Charles aside, Foxx flawlessly re-creates the “blind ’Bama boy”’s suspicious, stubborn, and fiercely independent public persona as well his unique speaking style, often scatting his words together as he woos the ladies or negotiates an unheard-of record deal. Hackford, who wrote the screenplay with newbie James L. White, doesn’t gloss over Charles’ demons, including his womanizing and heroin use. Much is made of the singer’s early traumas, too, which are presented in Crayola-colored flashbacks and include not only going blind from glaucoma at age 7, but also an event the filmmakers suggest was perhaps more debilitating: his younger brother’s surely preventable drowning in a washtub. Still, the music’s the thing here, and Foxx, who attended college on a piano scholarship, mimes Charles’ hand movements and lip-synchs along to the singer’s recordings with magical precision. (It’s also fun to see a time when record executives still said, “You either sound original or you got nothing.”) Strong supporting actors, notably Regina King as Charles’ firecracker backup singer Margie Hendricks, Sharon Warren as his tough mother, and Curtis Armstrong as visionary Atlantic Records exec Ahmet Ertegun, hold their own against Foxx to help make Ray a thoroughly satisfying portrait of talent as it blossoms, withers, and comes back to life. And if hearing genre-crossing hits such as 1962’s countrified “You Don’t Know Me” doesn’t make you ache, the closing footage of the recently deceased icon himself surely will.

—Tricia Olszewski

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