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Ray (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 29 October 2004
“Ray” is not as exceptional as Ray Charles, its subject—how could it be?—but it’s a terrific movie biography, engrossing and involving for its entire two and a half hour length. The time slides by so gracefully that at the end you’re likely to wish it were even longer; partly because it comes to a surprisingly abrupt end, thirty years before Ray Charles died.

He died this year, of course, so he was able to participate in the creation of this movie. I’m sure he did; for all his charm and ingratiating ways, he was a tough businessman—as the movie depicts—and I’m sure nothing got into this movie that he didn’t approve. In one sense, that’s surprising, because it really is a warts-and-all depiction of his life. It deals straightforwardly with his less admirable traits, such as his drug addiction, womanizing and brusque parting from people who had worked for and with him for years.

But still, the movie is immensely favorable toward him; just by showing his brilliance as a performer it could hardly be else. There really was only one Ray Charles, and we’re not yet aware that he’s gone. He was amazingly courageous—how many blind people do you know who never used a cane, never had a seeing-eye dog?—and amazingly creative. He blended jazz with gospel, later daringly chose to sing country music. He’d loved it all his life—he grew up in Florida—but it was almost always the province of white folks when he stepped into the country arena. Some country stars today have said Ray Charles was the best thing ever to happen to country music. But always, foremost, he was his own man, doing whatever he chose to do in his own distinctive way. He seems to actually have been the genius his reputation has labeled him as. In a breathtaking scene, we see Ray improvise “What’d I Say,” one of his greatest numbers.

It is Ray Charles we see, but he’s played throughout the movie, from his late teens onward, by Jamie Foxx, who was so good earlier this year in “Collateral.” He had the advantage of working directly with Ray Charles on developing his performance—on screen, he doesn’t play the man; he IS the man. More than in any other movie biography that I’ve seen, Foxx melds totally into his role. He becomes Ray Charles. We usually hear Charles’ own voice in the songs, though a couple of times it’s really Jamie Foxx we’re hearing. Foxx gets all the details right: the sensual swaying at the piano keyboard, the other kind of swaying when he walks. Ray always looked like he was about to bump into something, but the swaying actually prevented that happening: he was his own cane.

And he was his own man. James L. White wrote the screenplay from a screen story he cowrote with director Taylor Hackford. Of course, the movie hits the high and low points of Ray Charles’ life and career—the drugs, the women, the racism, the unusual shifts in creative direction, his clashes with managers, record company owners and others. Much of the focus is on his relationships with three women, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), whom he marries, and Margie Hendricks (Regina King) and Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis), two of the “Raeletts,” his trio of backup singers. When Ray comes on to them in his particular way—he strokes their wrists, convinced a beautiful wrist means a beautiful woman—one of them wryly ask if he chose that name because they “let Ray” do what he wants.
There’s a lot of energy in these relationships; when he finally breaks off with Margie, he’s just beginning to perform “Hit the Road, Jack”—and the lyrics take on a powerful extra meaning in one of the movie’s best scenes. Oddly and sadly, though, I don’t think we hear any number all the way through.

But the most important person in Ray’s life is his mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren); she’s a tough survivor, a single mother making a living in the pink Florida countryside. Ray’s younger brother drowns in a strange accident, then—in what he regards as punishment—Ray (C.J. Saunders as a boy) slowly goes blind. The film is laced with flashbacks to Ray’s childhood; we see his mother’s strength and foresight, and Warren is excellent in these sequences. She insists he learn for himself, to use his ears as replacements for his eyes. An amazing scene involving a cricket is the emotional climax of these flashbacks, although when the boy Ray leaves for a school for the blind, it’s also deeply moving.

Some critics have said that the film follows the usual biographical movie format too closely—but it’s unavoidable. Most careers follow roughly the same structure: the early years, learning what needs to be learned; the young adult years, putting things together; the triumph of the mature years, shaped by some form of adversity. In Ray Charles’ case, it was primarily the drugs; on more than one occasion, he only narrowly avoided prison time.

He took a bus from Florida to Seattle to begin his career, meeting Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate) almost the moment he stepped off the bus. He adopted his middle name for his last name; he was born Ray Robinson, but in the late 1940s, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson had pretty much laid claim to the name. He travels with a small band on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” (the deep south), he finds drugs, he signs with Atlantic Records. The bosses there, Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (“The West Wing”’s Richard Schiff) help him find his voice, but then he moves on to ABC Records. Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell) is his manager on and off the road for years, but then Joe Adams (Harry Lennix) comes along.

He faces criticism when he employs gospel melodies and rhythms into his act in the 1950s. At the 1961 jazz festival, Quincy Jones tells Ray that he never performs in states with Jim Crow laws, in theaters with segregated audiences. Ray is skeptical—his popularity is greatest in the South. In a scene that looks improbable but is almost certainly truthful, as Ray is being ushered into a Georgia theater to perform before a segregated, a protestor’s words touch Ray, and he simply walks away. The state legislature bans him from Georgia for life—but the climax of the film is when the ban was rescinded.

These are the facts of Ray Charles’ life, but they’re not dry and conventional; they’re tied to Ray’s vivid personality and dynamic way of performing. The movie has been scaled to this; color is very important in the Florida scenes, when Ray could still see, it’s less important later, when he cannot. The sound grows apace with the size of his venues, until in the big theater where he unveils his country-music act, we’re enveloped in the sounds of the audience and the music.

It’s often funny, always honest, and always engrossing. “Ray” is an outstanding movie biography, one of the best movies so far this year.

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