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Long after the movie's over, 'Ray' will be on your mind

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If ever there was a pop-music biopic crying to be made, that movie is "Ray," about Ray Charles, the legendary singer, pianist, and songwriter who died in June. Small wonder it's directed by Taylor Hackford, a pop-savvy filmmaker whose credits include producing "La Bamba," the entertaining 1987 picture about Ritchie Valens, and directing "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the marvelous Chuck Berry documentary of the same year.

"Ray" is Mr. Hackford's magnum opus to date, and stands with the better fictionalized biographies of popular music stars. It's conventional in approach and sometimes sentimental, even corny, in its content. But there were so many fascinating overtones in Mr. Charles's life and career that any account of them is bound to be riveting at least part of the time.

Some of those overtones were sad. Raised in Georgia and Florida during the era of institutionalized Southern racism, Charles was only 5 when he lost a brother in a tragic accident (which he apparently witnessed) and only 7 when he lost his sight. As a young adult he rose quickly in the music world, though, first by imitating stars like Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, then as an original talent who spun danceable songs out of gospel-music ingredients.

His embrace of this "devil music" scandalized his more conservative listeners, as did his addiction to heroin, which almost undermined his career before he kicked the habit in the 1960s. Other aspects of his private life also threatened his success, including his penchant for fathering children out of wedlock.


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