Comfortable and Furious

Ray (2004)

Written and Directed by Taylor Hackford

– Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
– Kerry Washington as Della Bea Robinson
– Regina King as Margie Hendricks
– Clifton Powell as Jeff Brown

Jamie Foxx is indeed a revelation in Taylor Hackford’s Ray, and it would be pointless to argue that he has any genuine competition for the Oscar. Bio-pics always impress the Academy faithful, and anytime a fresh face on the scene literally inhabits the skin of an American icon, awards flow like wine, whether or not they are deserved. In this case, however, the praise is much deserved, and it could be argued that Foxx’s masterful performance (not mere imitation) is the main reason to see this film. There are, of course, other elements that make Ray a solid, worthwhile evening at the movies, but Foxx is so commanding that you’ll be hard-pressed to name them in the face of his brilliance. It is clear that Foxx studied along with the real Ray Charles before he died, as he brings us the walk, the talk, the gestures, and the passion for music that cannot be faked.

Foxx feels it too, almost as if he wrote the tunes himself. It is telling that we even forget that Charles is blind, as he remains interesting in his own right, not a mere freak of nature who achieved success in spite of his “problems.” Foxx plays Ray not as a victim or even a noble, handicapped saint, but rather a talented, determined man who likely would have done it the same way had he never gone blind. It’s impossible to know, of course, but given Ray’s stature as a tough businessman, recording genius, and tireless ladies’ man, there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have sight behind those dark glasses.

And then there’s the music. Whatever your personal preference, Ray’s toe-tapping rhythms — his mix of R&B, jazz, country & western, and soul — are impossible to dislike, as they capture the essence of why we respond to music in the first place: it makes us feel alive. Given Ray’s marital problems and heroin addiction, it always amazes a musically untalented person such as myself how he managed to pump out hit after hit in the face of such personal destruction. But that’s always the catch of films like this; artists channel everything they have into their gift, and the rest of life seems to find a way to catch up. It is this element — that Ray Charles so loved music that everything else suffered — that is so familiar as to be a howler of a cliché, but perhaps there is a great deal of truth to it.

We always know that films about musicians will have the “big scene” where a loved one will make threats unless the artist pays more attention to Junior’s Little League games or his big English test, so I can allow a pass for yet another “offender.” I know that Ray cared more about his music, so even if the film insists otherwise, I will leave the theater with the truth carefully tucked away.

Hackford’s film is a long one (a little over 2 1/2 hours), but the length is necessary, as we follow Ray from his childhood in Florida, to his early days in Seattle, to his later success and nationwide tours. Needless to say, the medium of cinema makes the road seem a lot easier than it actually was, but that’s less the fault of the film itself than the realities of storytelling. Charles worked the dives and seedy bars to make a buck, but he’s signed with Atlantic Records before you know it, making the suffering brief and relatively painless.

Throughout, Ray is haunted by the drowning death of his younger brother, which he witnessed and failed to prevent. I accept that the death is the “hook” on which we hang all of Ray’s later troubles (addiction, insecurity, reckless selfishness), but I always wonder if it’s as easy as all that. Watching a family member die is of course bound to live with you the rest of your life, but films tend to oversimplify things, stripping characters of agency and keeping alive the ghosts of the past that may not have that much of an impact. Again, it’s impossible to know.

But I do not bring this up as a criticism, because I never felt manipulated by the device, that is until the very end of the film. Ray gives up heroin after being “told” by his baby brother that he shouldn’t blame himself for the accident. In this dream sequence, Foxx appears pretty much as himself in that he’s not blind and doesn’t have all of Ray’s mannerisms. This “release” was wholly unnecessary, and was heavy-handed when the rest of the film had been so measured and sure-footed. In fact, the final few moments are the lone weak spots, as we end in 1979 with Ray being given an award for his defiance of Georgia’s segregation laws back in the 1960s. It’s the typical “moment of triumph” that seems to be obligatory for Hollywood treatments, although I have little tolerance for it.

And even though we are led to believe that Ray’s life was gravy from then on, we are spared the alcoholism, endless streams of children (he fathered at least twelve in all), broken marriages, and illness. The film doesn’t shy away from Ray’s “demons” (to use typical movie speak) and in a way, Ray comes off as one heartless S.O.B., but as always, we are let off the hook too soon.

If there is a lesson from Ray’s life, it is that talent and ambition are incompatible with family, children, and friendship. Ray’s charm is infectious and I’d love to discuss music with him while nursing a bourbon, but his concerns are his alone, and I doubt he ever really cared about anyone else the way he did his music. Women were kept around so long as they remained compliant and useful (i.e. sexually), but otherwise they were garbage to be left by the curb. At one point, Ray receives a call that a former lover (and one-time back-up singer) has died from a heroin overdose (leaving a young child that is in fact his) and he is forced to steady himself against a wall as he sobs. Not twenty feet away is his current wife, who knows that he had an affair (and child) with this woman. Ray might have been a musical legend, but there’s no way around the fact that he was one selfish bastard to boot.

I also have little doubt that the tears were not for the woman or his child, but for his own sense of loss; that a piece of his life was now gone. To the film’s credit, there is no sugarcoating of this side of Ray’s life. He played the piano, wrote music, shot smack, and fucked just about every woman who crossed his path. If anyone got hurt that was their problem. So why, then, the uplifting conclusion?

Quite simply, Ray deserves a hagiography of sorts, if only for his contributions to music and his brave stand against Jim Crow concerts in Georgia (a state which subsequently banned him for life), which cost him a great deal of money at the time. I even look past his arrests for drug use, as it was obvious that he was targeted for his celebrity. And yet, Ray Charles should never be confused with someone like Muhammad Ali, a true hero who used his fame for social causes at every opportunity, even giving up his title to avoid service in Vietnam. Ali was savvier in terms of his image, although he is similar to Ray in that they both can’t keep their dicks in their pants. But Ray never asked to speak for Civil Rights or injustice, which might be a flaw in his character, but should not be seen as a weakness of the film. Ray was what he was, and Hackford’s film and Foxx’s performance give us the best sense yet what he was all about.

The supporting performances (especially Kerry Washington as his long-suffering wife Della Bea) are all top-notch in that they keep with the film’s natural, unforced tone. No one is ever caught playing tricks; even Foxx, who is obviously Oscar-worthy, but never resorts to begging. So, while I acknowledge that the film proceeds conventionally in many ways, I was utterly enchanted by the experience. It’s a solid, well-crafted piece, and everything falls into place with supreme competence, vigor, and understanding. It sweeps us along; its sounds and images are impossible to ignore or refuse.

And while it won’t be confused for a cutting-edge work, it does have the courage to ask that we love Ray Charles as a man who contributed greatly to American music, and hence society as a whole, even though he’s not as huggable as we might have thought. And that’s okay, as only a fool would ask that our heroes and idols be spotless and holy; unreal saints who glide along without temptation, folly, or sin. If history is any guide, the greater and more frequent the sin, the better the artist. Ray Charles, then, is in pretty good company.