Remembering Ray Charles

Complex, courageous, musical genius

RAY: Directed by Taylor Hackford. Written by James L. White, based on a story by Hackford and White. Produced by Stuart Benjamin, Taylor Hackford, Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin. Cinematographer, Pawel Edelman. Production design, Stephen Altman. Editor, Paul Hirsch. Music composer, Craig Armstrong. Music supervisor, Curt Sobel. Costumes, Sharen Davis. Starring Jamie Foxx. With Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, Terrence Dashon Howard, Regina King, Larenz Tate, Richard Schiff, Aunjanue Ellis, Bokeem Woodbine, Sharon Warren and Curtis Armstrong. Universal Pictures, 2004. PG-13. 152 minutes.

Ray Charles is an authentic American musical genius, a popular singer born into the poverty and segregation of north Florida in 1930 and recognized as an icon for the ages upon his death last June.

Taylor Hackford’s traditional biography of Charles’s early years in music fills in his story with interesting characters and situations. In a series of flashbacks, we learn about Ray’s amazing mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren), who adopted a harsh but loving approach to her boy’s disability. Ray lost both his sight and his brother at an early age, and these life-altering events merged in his memories and haunted him for many years.

When the film opens, Ray is a grown man, leaving the South for Seattle, the hip musical sensibilities of the left coast and a chance to start a career as a pianist and later a singer. From this time in the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, Charles’s life was an emotional and professional roller coaster. He overcame numerous obstacles — poor pay, cheating agents and racist handlers — but he was vulnerable to women and heroin.

Loyal to his wife, Bea (Kerry Washington), in his own way, Ray also had meaningful affairs with the band’s singer, Mary Ann (Aunjanue Ellis), and one of the Raelettes, Margie (Regina King). Ray became a savvy businessman, producing his own records and owning his masters, as well as a formidable singer and songwriter.

Other people played important roles in Ray’s early career. They include Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell), who drove him and took care of him on the road; young jazz great Quincy Jones (Lorenz Tate); and Atlantic Record producers Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff, “The West Wing”), who encouraged Ray to find his own voice.

The film’s greatest achievement is Jamie Foxx’s performance, so flawless that for long stretches of time I would completely forget I wasn’t watching the young Ray Charles himself. It’s an uncanny likeness, one that still gives me goosebumps.

The film’s second outstanding feature is its music. Director Taylor Hackford recognizes we need to hear the great music Ray wrote and sang. Using his music as a popular culture calendar, I remember who I was when I first heard “What I Say” or “Georgia.” Showing Ray’s life at that time lets me draw connections between his large life and my small one. It helps me understand again what a terrible price celebrity demands of the talented, and the connections allows me to forgive him — and all of us — for being human. A generous artistic expression of life such as Ray’s helps many of us appreciate our own lives more deeply, while his gospel roots, like those of the country and western music, the blues and rock and roll, all point to redemption.

At the end of the film, we see Ray choosing life, although we don’t get to spend the next 40 music-filled years with him. If a sequel to this movie is made, I hope Jamie Foxx will star, because he knows Ray’s joy-struck personality from the inside out and could show us how this remarkable man moved into the mellower, later years of his life.

Now playing at Cinema World and Cinemark, Ray receives my very highest recommendations. (Note the length of the show: two-and-a half hours. It goes fast.)

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