|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 01 February 2005|
Oftentimes, when people talk about the movie “Ray,” folks mention Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of the famed musician first. Due to this film’s revelation of his dramatic skills, in addition to his highly developed musical talent, it’s now impossible to view this multitalented performer as just another hardworking comedian. When it comes to Foxx, comedy is but one of his many qualities. These days, every comic and his brother, it seems, has his own sitcom. While few of these stand-ups are playing themselves the way Jerry Seinfeld did, most of these gigs are not what you might call difficult artistic stretches. With few exceptions – notably Jim Carrey and Robin Williams – comedians just don’t cut it as serious actors. Although Foxx has a few funny bits in this film, the primary emotional tone of the story is fairly serious and if you weren’t already familiar with his prior work, I’ll bet you would never guess that Foxx is best known for being a comedian -- especially after watching this breakthrough film.
Although there’s nothing wrong with praising Foxx’s Academy Award-winning performance – he most certainly deserves such acclaim -- it would be a sin to ignore what this biographical picture tells us about the soulful man behind those dark shades. For example, it’s not often that one can point directly to the sole inventor of a musical style. But Charles offers an exception to this rule. Bluegrass fans can single out Bill Monroe as the creator of that high and lonesome style, but the genres of jazz and rock are each complex mixtures of various cultural and stylistic intersections. In other words, these innovations were group efforts. Yet when Charles belts out “I Got a Woman” for the first time here, this performance signals the pivotal birth of soul music. Of course, we take this stylistic innovation for granted nowadays, but the film has one scene in particular where religious protesters storm a Charles show, claiming that he has blasphemously taken church tunes and put secular lyrics to them. Charles defended this unorthodox practice by simply stating that he was merely singing from his soul -- hence the term soul music.
In retrospect, Ray’s brushes with intolerance seem a little hard to believe -- especially when you consider just how extreme music can be today. But while time may have proven his instincts correct, this movie doesn’t always show the piano-pumping soul man in an entirely positive light. Charles may have married and had children with Della Bea, but while on the road he had many extramarital affairs. In fact, he even had a child out of wedlock with one of his backing singers. The road was also that vulnerable place where Charles took up a heroin habit, which dogged him for a good part of his life. This pattern of drug abuse threatened his marriage more than all of his marital infidelities combined.
Charles’ bad choices clearly caused a lot of his troubles. But some of his suffering was not his fault at all. He was struck with glaucoma at the tender age of seven, which forced him to then cope without eyesight for the rest of his life. He also faced racism, which caused him to set aside his black pride in order to make a buck. But when, as this film shows, fellow blacks confronted him about playing for segregated audiences in Georgia, he made the bold decision to completely stop performing in that state. This decision caused him to miss a show he was contracted to play, which led to a lawsuit from the promoter and an eventual lifetime ban from ever playing in this Southern state again. At the film’s end, however, there’s another scene where the Georgia state government officially apologizes to Charles for its unfair treatment of the singer, finally rewarding him for sticking to his guns.
In addition to helping end racial intolerance in America, Charles also made great strides for the cause of working musicians in general. When he left Atlantic Records, for instance, to sign with ABC, he not only received a hefty raise, but he also attained ownership of his master tapes. When you consider that so many black performers died nearly penniless, despite having multiple hit records, this fact alone is nothing less than revolutionary. Back when Charles first began recording, he was accused of sounding too much like Nat King Cole one moment, and being a dead ringer for Charles Brown the next. The film suggests that the owners of Atlantic Records were the ones who encouraged Charles to develop his own unique style. And boy, did they do the right thing there! Had they not put this idea into Charles’ head, just imagine how much great music we may have missed out on. But Charles’ restless creativity didn’t stop there. Before long, he was adding strings to his recordings, and expanding greatly the vocabulary of black music. And when he eventually took the daring chance to record country and western music, he created a unique recorded legacy (there are still relatively few black country stars). Of course, he was almost as highly criticized for reworking this white man’s music as he was for taking church music from the pews to the bars. But when his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music went on to become a smash hit, his instincts were proven right once again.
“Ray” is an inspirational story about overcoming even the most difficult odds, as well as a cautionary tale about the consequences of drug abuse. Some scenes may make you wince with empathetic pain, while others might cause you to cheer Charles on. Most importantly, however, this film will help you understand where Charles’ music came from emotionally. Bob Marley once sang that, “Him who feels it, knows it.” And after watching these pivotal moments in Charles’ life on film, one cannot doubt that he was a man who deeply felt both joy and pain, and knew how to put these most extreme emotions to beautiful music.
In addition to Foxx, for his outstanding performance, director Taylor Hackford also deserves a positive mention here. It’s much easier to get musical biopics like this one wrong (if you doubt this, see “The Doors”) than it is to get them right, as was the exceptional case with “The Buddy Holly Story.” Rather than glorify Charles’ excesses, the way Oliver Stone voyeuristically portrayed Jim Morrison’s drunken dark side in “The Doors,” Hackford gives Charles’ life a much more well-rounded perspective. Here, you see Charles both at his best and his worst.
Ray Charles’ life, as revealed through “Ray,” is an incredible journey – to say the least. It’s one that is must-see viewing for aspiring musicians and non-musicians alike.