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King Charles
A film review of RAY by Camus
 
"Never trust a junkie…"
"Listen to him, man!"

 

Bill Hicks died much too soon; not that he could have done a lot against pancreatic cancer to prevent it.

In the age of Bush and Blair we need Hicks like Trainspotting's lavatories need bleach. Where is our Bill, the 80's Lenny Bruce? As one of the US's most politically motivated stand ups, Hicks rallied against those that would pollute and cheapen the soul of the 'real thing'. NOT Coca Cola. His rants against Bush Snr. and the US's own Gulf war in the 80s (before they let the Brits share the 'glory' for its sequel) can be effortlessly transplanted to today, their relevance and parallels striking. Hicks died in February 1994 at the age of 32, a true crime against a better nature. The Spice Girls of his era were 'The New Kids on the Block', a manufactured pop band that captured the spirit of the eighties. That's not a compliment. The New Kids were good role models for US youth. Ho hum. They said 'No' to drugs and behaved impeccably. Hah! Hicks thundered "When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children to listen to people who fuckin' ROCKED!" Hicks performed a dialogue on stage playing a man and his son appreciating the real thing. I'm paraphrasing from memory:

"Dad, the man has a blood blister on his lip…"

"LISTEN to the fucking music!"

In short, don't worry about or consider the womanising, the heroin addiction, the blindness, the psychological damage from an horrific accident in his childhood or anything else (pretty sure Ray had no blood blisters), LISTEN to the music, man… Ray Charles sings 'the real thing'. Hell, Ray Charles IS the real thing. Director Taylor Hackford's labour of love (its production eerily overlaps its subject's death in 2004) is a biopic that delivers, another excellent attempt to cram an extraordinary life in under three hours. The best you can do is slice off a sliver of concentrated personality, maintain the merest but strong whiff of character from a lifetime chronicled and hope the work is appreciated for its ambition. Hackford does a great, unfussy job and lets RAY soar by letting the strong look-alike but talented Jamie Foxx do wonders. Hackford, to his credit, simply gets out of Ray's way.

Ray (Charles) Robinson (Sugar Ray had commandeered the 'Robinson' name in that era) was a blind, black man from the south of the US just after World War II. Stated that simply, it's a wonder he made it over the state line. He does so here by suggesting he was blind because of the injuries he sustained in the war. A racist bus driver concedes to the braver man and helps him on the bus. As Ray walks past camera, a grin tells us that a little white lie is a better weapon against black-hating bigots than any club or gun. But in those days, all that prejudice was 'how things were'. My own father still tells the story of his sitting down to get a hair-cut in the south of the US and being physically thrown out, told that the barbers 'was fur coloreds' (sic). He was as amazed at segregation then as I am now that it actually existed. A liberal, knee jerk, reaction to the injustice that history consistently illustrates? No matter. It still makes me go "What?"

Structurally, the film charts young Ray's progress while inter-cutting with selected memories and nightmarish watery visions from childhood. His extraordinary mother (played to the hilt with visible strength by Sharon Warren) was pragmatic from the very start. She lost a son (while young Ray watched, convinced his brother was play acting for attention) and had to stand by helplessly as her remaining boy lost his sight. There is something terribly tragic about watching the boy continually wiping the grey gunk from his eyes knowing the blackness is descending. I was touched every time we went back to Ray's childhood. The scene in which the young Ray falls, hurts himself, calls for his mother and then realises how he can listen to navigate the world is the most moving of the film. His mother witnesses the whole thing and despite the overwhelming inducement to intervene (and as a parent I can say with some qualification that the temptation must have been overwhelming), to her credit she doesn't and is moved to tears as Ray reveals proof that he has really listened. It's also proof to her that he will not accept the status of 'invalid'. Tough love doesn't get much tougher than this.

Something Hackford plays front and centre (a gift for a biopic) was the turbulent social upheavals that accompanied Ray Charles' ascent to the higher stages of popular music. By his simple refusal to play in Georgia because of segregation being in force, he provided choke to the engine of social change. It's almost a flippant throwaway in the film. Foxx is being led to the auditorium whilst an enlightened young man calls out to him from the protesting crowd, urging him to 'see' if nothing else, the logic of integration. I think the easy way in which Ray changes his mind is a nod to the fact that Ray only 'sees' one thing - music. Black and white are concerns for those who can see (with a nod to the subtext that only the blind can see in this instance). Ray concedes the political hot-potato as a truism and in that simple act of defiance becomes a heroic figure for many during the sixties. As if to prove the veracity of the story, Hackford consistently drops in colour newsreel footage, wide shots which would be prohibitively expensive to produce. At first, its graininess was a jolt, perhaps a budgetary necessity but in hindsight, I believe this footage is used to continually remind us that 'all this' was true.

Hackford plays strong cards against the way society treats its 'invalids'. Ray's band, at the start of his career, routinely uses his blindness against him and his reluctant sexuality as some sort of indentured rent deal. The first person who comes into Ray's life respecting the music and how good they could be for each other is Ahmet, a small time, immigrant record producer. Realising Ray's potential, he rescues him from a grubby hotel room and after an impromptu jam session, gets Ray to reveal what's inside. Up until this point, Ray had been mimicking well known singers thinking 'that’s what the audience likes…' But after the delightful origins of 'Do The Mess Around' (if this was literally true, then it's glorious), it’s all a rocket to the top. Richard Schiff plays Ahmet's partner Jerry, who loves Ray's music and urges people to see past all the negatives and just revel in that sound. It's quite something to see a very familiar face with the beard removed, hair added to a bald head, running around sixties America with a great passion for soul. It was also nice to see him stay in one piece after Spielberg had this intelligent actor literally ripped in half by two T Rexes in the awful The Lost World. Schiff, of course, plays Toby Zeigler from The West Wing.

Despite the shades, the awkward but distinctive gait and the hands out feeling for the unexpected, Foxx's Ray is first a man of ambition and secondly, he happens to be blind. It's this strength of will that carries with it in its wake an interesting and debatable morality. I use 'debatable' in a literal sense as I don't want to attach even a soupçon of disapproval from my own point of view. Being on the road for a musician (whilst having a home and wife) must be akin to shooting a movie on location. As a young film runner on location twenty years ago, the costume assistant fell into hysterics after I told her that I had no location liaison - no sexual playmate - while away from home. She was genuinely aghast, like it was some rule I had broken. She informed me that it was not only common knowledge, de rigueur for crews to play around, it was also tolerated by those left at home. I was certain that couldn't be true and to think 20 years later I'm seeing it in a different light.

Ray's life is split, schizoid like, between the loving arms of his wife and subsequent children and the lure of the road where his love life plays by entirely different rules. Now for a conventional Hollywood hero, this may well have been a problem (ain't the truth grand? Can you imagine a suit suggesting the film-makers cut the affairs to keep Ray sympathetic?) He's a tough sell particularly because he does not stop having affairs on the road. I would imagine a normal audience would be put off by that. Another character flaw, his dependence on heroin, also plays into the arguments that Ray is an unsympathetic character. I think I've figured out why and how Ray and indeed Ray the movie gets away with it.

The music.

Listen to the music. Ray is the music and in the most Hollywood-ian of speeches, Ray's wife B tells him that it's not just time with the children and her that he will be deprived of in gaol (for heroin smuggling)… Music will be denied him, something he probably couldn't live without. I think that’s built in to the movie's soul, its own soul (in a word). I think that Foxx makes Ray real and real and flawed is always interesting. It's a bonus that it's also a genuinely touching movie.

Ray

USA 20045
152 mins
director
Taylor Hackford
producers
Howard Baldwin
Karen Elise Baldwin
Stuart Benjamin
Taylor Hackford
screenplay
James L. White
story
Taylor Hackford
James L. White
editor
Paul Hirsch
music
Craig Armstrong
Ray Charles
production design
Stephen Altman
starring
Jamie Foxx
Kerry Washington
Regina King
Clifton Powell
Harry J. Lennix
Bokeem Woodbine
review posted
10 February 2004