"Hollywood is a cold-blooded motherfucker," Ray Charles told David Ritz, the co-author of his autobiography, Brother Ray, last year. "It's easier to bone the president's wife than to get a movie made."
I don't know about you, but I was shocked when I read those remarks - not by the crudeness, but by the resentment. Charles, who died of liver disease in June, had been trying to get a movie made about his life for over 25 years, and he'd just about run out of time when Taylor Hackford, the director of An Officer and a Gentleman and The Devil's Advocate, came calling. But how to tell the story of Ray Charles Robinson, the blind boy who sang and played his way out of rural poverty into world acclaim, the musical genius who wedded the blues to gospel, the savvy ladies' man and crafty businessman who, to those who loved him and worked for him, could seem like a bit of a cold-blooded motherfucker himself? Could Hackford do justice to Charles' heroically messy life, which cursed the darkness, converting pain and suffering and longing into transcendent songs about pain and suffering and longing? And what about those songs? How do you imitate the inimitable Ray Charles?
You start by hiring Jamie Foxx. Fresh from his night on the town with Tom Cruise in Collateral, where he played a cab driver with big dreams and little follow-through, Foxx gives a star performance in Ray, but there's never any doubt who the real star is: Ray Charles. Anybody could put the sunglasses on, tilt his head back, keep time by swaying side to side, then hug himself in applause-acknowledging gratitude. But Foxx just keeps going. He's nailed Charles' stiff-kneed gait. He's nailed his stiff-fingered approach to the piano. And he's nailed his hipster-jive way of talking, the words effortlessly forming themselves into riffs. (Was the man ever not musical?) But these are still just the externals. Refusing to ingratiate himself to us, Foxx has dug deep to find the soul of a man who's often been credited with inventing soul music. And if the script had been prepared to dig as deep as Fox was, we might really have something here. Instead, we get Psych 101, the biopic blues.
Ray begins in 1948, when Charles boarded the bus for Seattle, which he'd figured out was as far as he could get from Greenville, Fla., the dirt-poor town he'd grown up in. And, career-wise, it's pretty much all uphill from there - success on the chitlin circuit, a recording contract with Atlantic Records, the forging of his own style, hit singles, the move to ABC-Paramount, which offered him a better deal than Sinatra's, more hit singles, the adaptation of his style to country-and-western music, yet more hit singles. Meanwhile, there was his marriage to a woman who endured his on-the-road infidelities and the nurturing of a habit that would land him in jail not once but twice. And since it seems never to have occurred to Hackford and scriptwriter James White that one might shoot heroin because it's so damn much fun, we're supplied with a Rosebud - the death by drowning of Charles' 3-year-old brother while the 5-year-old Charles, still in possession of his sight, looked on.
Orson Welles called his own Rosebud - the boy's sled that supposedly explained Citizen Kane - "dollar-book Freud." Likewise, Charles' early-childhood trauma seems like something out of a dimestore novel, despite the fact that it actually happened. And Hackford could be accused of milking the gloppy tears that pour out of the young Charles' eyes when glaucoma pitches him into darkness. But these are the biopic's meat and potatoes, insurmountable obstacles that are somehow surmounted. Meanwhile, the poverty and racism that made every day a fresh new challenge for any poor black person in the Jim Crow-era South are given relatively short shrift. It's not that Ray doesn't mention them, it's that Charles sails so breezily past them. His sudden refusal to play a concert in Georgia that would have segregated the audience into black and white seems to come out of nowhere and take very little out of him, and yet he was banned from playing there for the next 20 years. Was Georgia not on his mind?
Perhaps not, but boning everybody except the president's wife apparently was. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the man who changed "This Little Light of Mine" to "This Little Girl of Mine" had a religious devotion to the opposite sex. And Ray isn't afraid to show him worshiping at the altar of women other than his wife. But the scenes don't generate much sexual heat, and you start to wonder just how much women meant to Charles. They meant everything, of course, stood for everything that was right and wrong with the world, but that only comes out in the performance footage, which is where Ray briefly soars. Unfortunately, Hackford cuts off each song just as it's getting started, and he ties each one to whatever's happening in Charles' life at the time. (Regina King's Margie gets sent home to "Hit the Road, Jack.") This is such a reductive approach to Charles' music, which drank from his life but fed from his genius. Hackford would like to tidy up Charles' heroically messy life, show Charles triumphing over his pain. But isn't the music triumph enough? Does the life have to sing, too?