RAY (2004)

HIT THE ROAD, JACK

It has been said that this script was passed around Hollywood for over a decade, and that initially no studio wanted to make it. Bio-pics can be a risky business. When they’re good, well made, the movie public eats them up, and spends a ton of cash on them. But if they turn out to be hackneyed, or poorly made, the public stays away in droves. Word of mouth is rapid and inevitable. A bad biography can tank and lose money rapidly. It can die in days, dragging the investors down into bankruptcy and disdain. Cash is king, and we must never forget that. Art and esthetics is always secondary to earning potential. Ray Charles, before he died last year, was personally involved with the project; consulting and advising. The filmmakers were wise enough to use Ray Charles’ singing voice for all the vocals. Some of the old classics were remastered, and Ray re-recorded some of the tunes.

Singer biographies usually do a brisk box office. RAY, so far, has been huge. This film, and Jamie Foxx’s incredible performance, stands toe to toe with many of the great ones; like Gary Busey as BUDDY HOLLY (1978), Kurt Russell as ELVIS (1979), Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens in LA BAMBA (1987), and Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis in GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1989). My favorite, up to this film, was Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS (1991). We seemed to really see the Lizard King on the screen. The female singers have been well represented as well; like Diana Ross in THE LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972), Bette Midler in the thinly disguised role of Janis Joplin in THE ROSE (1979), Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER (1980), Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in SWEET DREAMS (1985), and the young Jennifer Lopez as SELENA (1997). Some of these films have been so well received that they earned nominations and Oscars at the Academy Awards. RAY will join the ranks as one these important and influential films.

Taylor Hackford was the director. He has only directed a dozen films over his 25 years career; whereas he has been a producer on more than 16 films. He directed AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN in 1982, DOLORES CLAIBOURNE in 1995, and PROOF OF LIFE in 2000. Part of his notoriety presently is that he lives with actress Helen Mirren. RAY is more than two and a half hours in length, and at times it feels like it. Yet the scope of what is covered is very specific, the first turbulent three decades of Ray Charles’ life, from 1933-1966; and what a dynamic and dramatic whirlwind thirty years it was.

Ray Charles was a fighter, and his adversaries were formidable. He had to fight against Racism, which was much more prevalent in the post-WWII years, and throughout the 50’s. There was an incident in 1961 in Georgia. Ray decided not to perform a concert in his home state, because he finally had to face that fact that the audience was segregated; black folks could not attend. After failing to perform, the state of Geogia banned him from performing there “forever”. This was giving up a lot of income for him, but he seemed to only make that decision after he was cajoled and pressured by some black activists. The press had a field day, interpreting this act as a bold blow against White Southern Jim Crow racism, and they labeled it as an early victory for Civil Rights. In one sense, it truly was a victory, and a first step, but I wonder what Ray Charles actually felt. In this movie, Charles is portrayed as selfish, indulgent, ambitious, arrogant, and greedy among other things. As long as the white man was paying him, for the longest time he seemed oblivious to the obvious plight of his black brothers.

He had to fight Blindness. Recently I have read that his specific pathology was Childhood-onset Glaucoma, and that his subsequent blindness was secondary to poor medical treatment in the 30’s. In the film, the eye disease was not really discussed. After working with the blind for over 28 years, I took exception to several aspects of Foxx’s portrayal. It has been said that Ray never used a cane or a dog guide. He was shown several times ambulating in an unfamiliar environment. It suggests that perhaps Ray Charles was legally blind, not totally blind; at least in his formative years, while learning to play the piano, and memorizing landmarks. He may have had, for a time, some residual vision, some object perception.

Yes, Ray Charles was a remarkable individual, and had a kind of genius in regards to his music, but I assure you no totally blind person could travel in an unfamiliar environment without a sighted guide, a long white cane, or a dog guide. That scene in the film where he walked Kerry Washington, as Della Bea, his soon to be wife, home really bothered me. When he left her he traveled independently down an unfamiliar sidewalk, along an unfamiliar street, in a community he didn’t know, crossing busy streets, and so on. It just doesn’t fly as fact. I know professionals who have worked with Stevie Wonder. He travels everywhere with his entourage. He has a person on each side of him, guiding his shoulders, and giving him verbal cues. But of course, I understand that these unsavory darts of harsh “reality” do not have to taint the flow of the film’s narrative.

Within the field of Blindness, among the professionals, I have heard several stories about Ray Charles Robinson. The most prevalent one was that he did not have an eye disease at all. He was hysterically blinded secondary to the emotional trauma of watching his little brother drown. Glaucoma has never been mentioned. Roger Ebert liked the film, giving it 4 stars. He suggested that perhaps the intense guilt that Ray felt about not saving his little brother, was partly what drove him to drugs, to ease the emotional pain, and what may have driven him to become the consummate artist he was.

Besides racism and blindness, he had to fight Heroin. He started out like many musicians in the 40’s, smoking a little weed. He was introduced to it during his first major gig at that club in Seattle. [I loved those stock shots of Seattle in the late 40’s. I grew up there, and it really rang those old bells of nostalgia.] The club announcer, Oberon, turned him on. Warwick Davis, from WILLOW, as Oberon, had a masterful turn in this part; 90% character and only 10% little person. This was a quite an achievement, and a real challenge for any diminutive actor.

Soon Ray moved on, and progressed to shooting smack, to riding the horse of heroin. His problems with drug addiction were the central thread to the whole plotline. It was presented unflinchingly, and unmasked. Ray Charles would have insisted on that. When he kicked heroin in 1966, the film is all but over. Mr. Charles, as consultant, must have felt that drug addiction was his greatest demon; but not his only demon.

He also drank too much, and his womanizing was legendary and constant. At the end of the film, as a capstone, they depicted in incident in 1979. Ray was summoned to appear in front of the assembled Georgia State Senate. They formally apologized for their former racial blunders, and they made GEORGIA ON MY MIND the new state song. His family; children and grandchildren surround him. He would have only been 49 years old at that point. In the final credits, twenty-three of his children were listed. I read that Ray actually had fathered a lot more children, and had affairs with a lot more women than were depicted in the movie. Ray was a very passionate man, and this showed in his music and his style of playing; but as a celebrity, he felt that women and sex was a perk and he indulged himself shamelessly. It is reminiscent of certain professional basketball players who have claimed that they have had conquests and companions numbering in the thousands. Magic Johnson, of course, is presently paying the price for Cupid’s ardor.

The music of Ray Charles was the life’s blood and heartbeat of the film. One thinks of all those dozens of albums released over the last forty years. The film illustrated some of the musical transitions that he made. Initially, it was reported, Ray sang a lot like Nat King Cole; kind of a lounge singer. He did small clubs, and had a fledgling career. He even cut a record at one point. Then Lorenz Tate, as Seattle teenager and musician, Quincy Jones, met with him, and began to pressure him to create “real music”, and not just recycle the “safe sounds”. Ray responded strongly by creating the first strains of “Soul” music; that cross between Gospel and Rhythm & Blues. Man, it was a musical sound that America, and the whole world, craved. It led the way triumphantly toward Rock & Roll. Later, he used strings and a whole orchestra to flesh out his tunes, carving early inroads into what later would become Mancini country. And on top of that, he would do his own renditions of classic Country songs. One of my favorites of Ray’s albums was a duo between him and Johnny Cash. My wife pointed out, however, that even though numerous concerts and club dates were depicted, they never seemed to finish a whole song. Even in the old Elvis films, he would perform whole songs. We were left feeling like we wanted more of his music; that the music itself did not quite get the focus it deserved. She felt that some of the “soap-operish dramatic moments” could have been, should have been trimmed, and that the musical interludes needed to be lengthened and deepened.

Jamie Foxx is incredibly good as Ray Charles Robinson. Foxx, at one point in his life, had considered becoming a concert pianist. So those shots of him playing the piano did not have to be faked. I had heard that for many of the shots, Foxx wore eye prosthetics to simulate blindness to heighten his connection to the artist. Ray Charles the real interviewed him before he was finally given the part, and the great man gave his blessings. Foxx studied all the old film footage of the young Ray. He didn’t want to spend much time with the real Ray, the older man. He wanted to capture Ray the youngster, during those formative years.

Being a musician helped Foxx understand and capture Ray’s physical gyrations; his swaying and bobbing while playing, using his body as a baton, conducting the music. Some felt, as they watched Ray, that this movement was just drug-induced twitching, or Blindisms; like the self-hugging and the head tilts. In reality however, that view never would have worked. It never would have gotten under the skin of the man, like Foxx managed to do.

Foxx did not imitate Ray Charles; rather he inhabited him. His body movements were more like choreography than mere mimicry. During the songs, one was rarely aware of the lip-synching; only the totality of the performance. There was never a sense of impersonation. It became almost metaphysical. It was like the actor actually could channel the spiritual essence of Ray Charles; quite an incredible achievement. We felt that we had the privilege to get to know Ray, not Foxx playing Ray. Unlike say Jimmy Stewart playing in the GLENN MILLER STORY (1953), or Steve Allen playing in the BENNY GOODMAN STORY (1955). We never lost sight of James Stewart or Steve Allen. We never really felt that we got acquainted with those musicians.

One critic wrote,”Hackford’s film is never as good as Foxx’s performance—but still it is an ode to the genius of Ray Charles.”

Without Foxx, certainly this film would seem pedestrian and sluggish. But for me the film never lost sight of the greatness of Ray Charles; even though it often focused on his foibles and dalliances. It has the earmarks of a film that will sweep the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. It makes me want to rush out and buy several Ray Charles C/D’s. Jamie Foxx will be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and unlike the stalwart Will Smith in ALI, the buzz is strong and reliable. Foxx has an excellent chance of winning it, and standing in the rarified air of the shadows of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington.

I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004