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At the piano with Foxx, he was a key contributor to 'Ray'

How do you become Ray Charles? For Jamie Foxx, who portrays the legendary musician in the award-winning film "Ray," being a gifted actor, a trained pianist, and a natural mimic was a good start. Foxx also had a secret weapon: daily coaching from Curt Sobel, a Berklee College alumnus who -- as music supervisor for "Ray" -- advised Foxx on everything from the way the actor's fingers flew across the piano keys to the movements of his mouth singing "Hit the Road Jack."

"Taylor Hackford [the film's director] and I were going to meet with Ray and Jamie for the first time, in July of 2002, and I mentioned to Taylor that it might be interesting for me to bring my camera and shoot the meeting," says Sobel, who was in the Boston area last week for a special screening and discussion of "Ray" at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with Berklee students. "I did, and made DVDs of two hour-and-a-half sessions so that Jamie could study Ray's movements and voice."

At Berklee's film-scoring department, Sobel screened footage for a reporter of those early meetings at Charles's RPM studios in Los Angeles, where an uncharacteristically quiet Foxx and a typically gregarious Charles sit side-by-side at electric pianos. As Charles plays snippets of "Mess Around" and "Drown in My Own Tears," the actor gingerly touches the keyboard and begins to move his body, eventually mirroring Charles's signature lunging torso and cocked head. The tapes -- which include many close-ups of Charles's hands at the piano -- provided Foxx with the visual basis for his Oscar-nominated characterization.

"We met on an almost daily basis in Jamie's hotel room prior to shooting in New Orleans," Sobel says. "Sometimes he played on a dead keyboard to practice over Ray's tapes, and I would critique his performance, whether it was convincing, if he made an especially difficult jump. We didn't want Jamie to just mimic, though. We wanted him to be the man. I would tell him, 'When you have the feel for it, you'll know where Ray was at when he was playing it. That's what will convince the audience or not."'

Sobel's role in the making of "Ray" exceeded the usual job description of a music supervisor, which generally involves acting as a liaison between the director and the record companies, and overseeing the licensing of master recordings being used in a film. Sobel, who graduated from Berklee in 1978 with a degree in composition and arranging, had a far more creative hand; he helped cast the Raylettes, worked with the prop department to choose the various pianos and microphones that would appear on-screen, and selected final takes of musical scenes with Hackford.

In the film, Foxx lip-synchs to original master tapes and a handful of new recordings Charles made just months before his death in June. Although Charles had been willing to rerecord anything and everything, Hackford -- whose best director nod is one of six Oscar nominations "Ray" received -- wanted to use original masters wherever possible to infuse the film with the vintage sounds audiences know and love. That translated to a wonderfully authentic soundtrack but also greater challenges for Sobel and Foxx, who had to learn parts from a variety of old mono recordings on which piano and voice tracks couldn't be separated.

"Taylor wanted to tell Ray's story through the music," says Sobel, who has collaborated with Hackford on many films, including 1987's "La Bamba." "This is a musical first, not a drama. He depended on me to make sure Jamie was prepared. We had keyboards at the hotel, in Jamie's trailer, in my office, and on the set. Between every camera move, Jamie and I were outside at the piano with headphones on, and me with a hand-held tape recorder hitting play over and over again. We started with very wide room shots every morning and wouldn't get up close to Jamie until later in the day, which was one more way to get Jamie more practice time. Not once did he get frustrated or upset when we had to do it again. And again."

Sobel stepped out from behind the pianos and tape recorders to appear in one scene in "Ray": He conducts the orchestra during a high-wattage rendition of "Georgia on My Mind." But the Hollywood film music veteran says that in a 25-year career that's included work on 51 films, among them "Being John Malkovich," "X-Men," and "Finding Neverland," "the foremost experience has been the opportunity to meet and work with Ray Charles. He's a true American treasure."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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