Ray (10/10)

by Tony Medley

In the past year or so, I’ve seen some of the best films of my life. Freaky Friday was one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen. Passion of the Christ was the best religious film. Miracle was by far the best sports film. The Notebook was at the top of the romance list.

Now Ray joins that select group as one of the best musical biographies. What I most liked about it wasn’t the music, which is terrific, or the acting, which is exceptional, or the directing (Taylor Hackford), which is superb. No, what I most liked about it was that the two most admirable people in the film were Ray’s mother, Aretha (Sharon Warren, making her film debut, and it deserves an Oscar nomination), and wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington).

Ray’s long-suffering wife stood by him as long as she could through his drug addiction and infidelities. Although the film doesn’t show it, she finally had to leave him when his lifestyle was threatening her family.

Of course, Ray’s success is inspirational and remarkable. Starting out as a 7 year-old blind, penniless, fatherless black boy in the south, he became world famous, creating music loved by millions. How many of us could have coped with such disadvantages? But my heart went out to the two women who supported him, especially his mother. Faced with the loss of her younger son and the blindness of her older son, Aretha refused to allow him to be a victim or to feel sorry for himself. She immediately made him take care of himself, going to the point of not responding to him when he fell and begged for help, and, finally, sending him off to a school for the blind, even though she loved him dearly and didn’t want to part from him. She died at a youthful 31, a wonderful woman about whom Ray said, “This was the most important person in my life.” If there’s a hero in this story, it’s Aretha. She was the poorest of the poor, washed clothes to earn a living, lost her youngest son and selflessly sent her other son off to a place where he could be trained by people she knew were more competent than she in dealing with the blind. She died young, anonymously, and never knew the fame her son achieved or the pleasure he brought to the world. But without her it never would have happened.

After years of barnstorming on the Chitlun Circuit, Ray’s career blossomed when he signed with Atlantic Records and got involved with Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff). Atlantic became the premier Rhythm & Blues label in the ‘50s and the nation’s leading Soul label in the ‘60s. Ertegun, who also was involved in the early success of Big Joe Turner, The Drifters, The Coasters, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin, saw Charles’ talent, signed him, and stuck with him. When Ray subsequently didn’t let sentimentality enter into a decision when he got a better offer from ABC, Ertegun and Wexler were devastated, but Ertegun remained a good friend.

Ray’s drug addiction and infidelities are chronicled without soft-pedaling them. Another truth is the way Ray treated his longtime manager and friend, Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell), who led him to his early success, but was brutally replaced by Joe Adams (Harry Lennix) who became Ray’s manager for the next 40 years. Adams is represented as a scheming opportunist, manipulating Ray to fire Brown. The real Adams was from Watts, an actor who vied for roles in the ‘50s with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, was a Tuskegee Airman, and was the first black DJ to be broadcast from coast to coast. He obviously did all right for Ray, so, even though he comes across negatively in the film, maybe Ray knew what he was doing when he replaced Brown with Adams. This was a tough decision, but the film doesn’t do enough to go into it and to show that, in the end, it was probably the right decision for Ray’s career.

 Director Hackford expertly warps time instead of telling the story chronologically. We bounce back and forth among several time periods. There is fascinating archival color footage of New York and Los Angeles in the ‘40s and ‘50s interspersed. One shot identifies Los Angeles in 1950, but it clearly wasn’t 1950 because the cars were all ‘30s vintage. Five years after World War II ended, most of the cars in Los Angeles were post-1945.

Jamie Foxx’s interpretation of Ray is astonishingly faithful to the man as most of us remember him. How could he not win the Oscar? Just so you know, even though Foxx is apparently able to do a good approximation of Ray’s voice, all the music in the film is Jamie Foxx lip-syncing Ray Charles’ voice. As Music Supervisor Curt Sobel says, “Ray Charles was just too great not to use him when we had the chance.” Among the many songs interspersed throughout the narrative which create the rhythm and pace of the tale are I got a Woman (which, after its release in 1954, was credited as the birth of Soul by combining sacred Gospel with secular Rhythm & Blues), Drown in my Own Tears, What’d I say, Georgia on my Mind, Hit the Road, Jack, Unchain my Heart, and I Can’t Stop Loving You.

When the script (James L. White) was submitted to Charles, he approved it with only two minor changes, both factual and neither of which had to do with the more controversial aspects of his life. White spent many hours with Charles, and with Della, his former wife and life-long confidante in writing the script.

This is a long, two and one half hour film about a complex man. But it doesn’t drag and it's not judgmental. The story is compelling and the music is terrific. All I can say is, don’t miss it.

October 28, 2004

The End