Taylor Hackford’s new film about the life
of the legendary singer/musician Ray Charles chronicles
Ray’s life from his birth in 1930 to 1979 when the state of
Georgia declared Ray a cultural hero for his refusal to submit to
Jim Crow laws and made “Georgia on My Mind” the official
state song. It is a film told with dedicated authority and tenderness,
one the late Ray Charles would have been proud of.
When he was just 7 years old, Ray Charles Robinson lost his sight.
But he never let that loss affect his passion for life and music.
Born in the rural backwater of the Florida panhandle, Ray was raised
by a fiercely spirited single mother who taught him to fend for
himself. There is an amazing scene where the young Ray begs his
mother to help him after he’s gone blind, but she refuses
and lets him feel his way around the house by using his ears and
other senses. His independence was learned, and because of his mother’s
intelligent guidance, Ray never used a cane or a dog to help him
get around. He didn’t need it. Nor did he need anyone’s
help in negotiating his own contracts. In historic fashion, Ray
even demanded (and got) the masters of his original recordings from
his record label.
For years in his early career, Ray imitated the angelic voice
of Nat “King” Cole and learned everything
there was to know about gospel and, believe it or not, country music.
So after he was signed to his first big record deal with Atlantic
Records, he created a sort of fusion of rhythm and blues, country,
and gospel. He was a genre unto himself, and his music helped redefine
the music of the South. Songs like “I Got a Woman” and
“Hit the Road, Jack” were completely original, and when
we hear them played in the film, they remind us why his gifts are
so unparalleled. There are a few moments when the credibility of
his inspirations is strained, such as when he basically writes the
song “What’d I Say” during the last 20 minutes
of a show. It’s a little hard to believe that the words and
lyrics developed so perfectly in such a brief amount of time. But,
then again, Ray himself served as an adviser to the film and worked
for many years with Taylor Hackford to perfect the script. So, who
Ray was addicted to heroin for many of his most productive years.
Amazingly, it only seemed to accentuate his genius. Throughout his
life, Ray was haunted by the death of his younger brother, who drowned
in a bathtub before Ray’s eyes. Paralyzed by a lack of understanding,
the young Ray basically watched his brother die. The film suggests
that the memory of this tragedy contributed to Ray’s addiction,
a habit that threatened to ruin his career. Women were another source
of drama in his life, but he never gave up on them. Despite his
roving ways, and his most damaging affair with Margie Hendricks
(played with fantastic gusto by Regina King), Ray’s
beloved wife Della Bea (played by the lovely Kerry Washington)
never left his side. The film doesn’t portray Ray as a cruel
cheater, more like a man who needed to be loved on the road, but
who would never forsake his responsibilities at home. Indeed, he
was honest in his own way about his affairs, and his wife stayed
by his side because she was able to accept his weaknesses.
Director Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman, Dolores
Claiborne), who also directed Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll,
a great documentary about Chuck Berry, spent a
decade working with Ray Charles to capture the story of an American
icon. Ray’s magnetic genius and quiet sweetness are portrayed
in equal proportion, and in rare Hollywood fashion, the demons that
haunt him are also given a fair share of screen time. From a script
by Hackford and James L. White, we are given a
story told with heavy use of flashbacks. The flashback sequences
(shot with gorgeous color saturation by Pawel Edelman)
are a bit off-putting at first, but eventually the rhythms of the
scenes begin to take on a fluid form. And when the music comes alive,
so does the film.
The music in the film practically begs the audience to get up
and dance. Spontaneous eruptions of sound help bring this somewhat
traditional musical biography to explosive life. Ray’s style
was inimitable, but Jamie Foxx somehow manages
to thoroughly convince us that he is Ray Charles. His body language,
mannerisms, the inflection in his raspy voice, and the way he plays
piano are all so much like Ray that we practically forget that we’re
watching an actor pretending to be Ray. In effect, Foxx becomes
Ray Charles, and we are mesmerized by the depth and nuances of his
performance. It is a star-making vehicle if ever there was one.
Trained classically on the piano, Foxx is known to most movie-goers
as a comedian. Here, with his own piano playing featured throughout
the film, and his incredible gift for subtle humor, Foxx has created
his own legendary, virtuoso performance. Come Oscar time, look for
his name to be called not just in the list nominees, but as winner
for Best Actor.
—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett