"Never trust a junkie…"
"Listen to him, man!"
Hicks died much too soon; not that he could have done a lot
against pancreatic cancer to prevent it.
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:
the man has a blood blister on his lip…"
"LISTEN to the fucking music!"
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.
(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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.