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"Features the performance of a lifetime by Jamie Foxx"
"The film is successful (because) it uses his music as a narrative element - it tells a story."
"This is a role that Foxx was born to play."
"Stands out as a vibrant, compassionate, and honest reflection."
Ray  

Cast

Ray Charles: Jamie Foxx
Della Bea Robinson: Kerry Washington
Margie Hendricks: Regina King
Quincy Jones: Larenz Tate
Fathead Newman: Bokeem Woodbine
Aretha Robinson: Sharon Warren
Ahmet Ertegun: Curtis Armstrong
Oberon: Warwick Davis
Review November 2004

You give your hand to me
And then you say, "Hello."
And I can hardly speak,
My heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well.
Well, you don't know me.
(no you don't know me)

"You Don't Know Me" - Ray Charles


Innovator, musical genius, international superstar. These are just a few of the words used to describe the incomparable Ray Charles, one of the true pioneers of gospel, country, and rhythm and blues. With a distinctive voice and style, Ray Charles revolutionized the music industry, mixing formerly taboo subjects together to create a unique sound of his own. It wasn't always easy, nor easily accepted. And in Taylor Hackford's musical tribute, "Ray," a different light is cast on the famed musician, one that focuses on his most volatile period - the death of his brother, the loss of his vision, the addiction of heroin, the seduction of women, and the price of fame on his family. This is his story, an unflinching portrait of a man who broke through social and artistic barriers to become one of America's most beloved performers. And it features the performance of a lifetime by Jamie Foxx, who infuses the perfect mix of energy, charisma, and spirit into the leading role. We still may not truly know Ray Charles, but this film brings us much closer.

In March 1948, at the age of 17, Ray Charles Robinson hopped on a Greyhound bus and headed across the country to find work as a musician in Seattle. Exposed to early church hymns and blues from local musicians, Ray had become a respectable pianist. But his musical talents would not help him on this journey, one made more difficult by the fact that he was an impoverished, blind, African American from the segregated South. Yet despite his adversity, Ray had a knack for finding his own way in life, thanks in large part to his mother. After the tragic death of his brother, glaucoma settled in and Ray became blind. But it was his mother who helped him navigate by sound and who sent him away to St. Augustine, a school for the blind. Said his mother: "You're blind, not dumb; You lost your sight, not your mind." And it was tough love that would make him stronger.

Upon his arrival, Ray quickly landed a record deal with Jack Lauderdale of Swingtime Records. And shortly after, Lauderdale put him on the road with Lowell Fulson, where many lonely nights exposed him to the world of heroin. Although his addiction was starting to take hold, he had a major breakthrough in the 1950's when he was signed by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Not wanting another Nat King Cole or Charles Brown, the partnership helped elicit the "real" Ray Charles, one who defied controversy by mixing church gospel with blues. Starting with "I've Got a Woman" in 1956, Charles reeled off many more hits like "What'd I Say," "Drown in My Own Tears," and "Unchain My Heart." And it was during this time that he met the love of his life, Della Bea Robinson.

In 1959, Ray Charles left Atlantic for a record breaking, exclusive deal with ABC-Paramount. But the biggest surprise was that he shifted away from the gospel and blues inspirations of the past and instead, turned toward country music. Once again taking innovation to new heights, he found success with such songs as "Georgia on My Mind," "I Can't Stop Loving You," and "Born to Lose." Yet, he found himself banned for life from Georgia for refusing to play in segregated clubs. Subsequently, as his fame grew, so did his personal problems. His marriage became weakened by infidelity and his heroin addiction got him in trouble with the law, particularly after an embarrassing narcotics bust at Boston's Logan Airport in 1965. Struggling with childhood demons, drug addiction, and family complications, Ray set out to get his life back on track and reclaim the things that mattered most in the world.

Ray Charles Robinson was born on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia and went blind by the age of seven. But because of the determination of his mother, he developed a strong resolve to overcome adversity, whether it was the Jim Crow laws of entertainment, racism, the prejudices against the blind, or the influences of drugs. Dubbed "The Genius of Soul," Ray Charles invigorated American Soul, mixing blues and gospel in unprecedented ways and revolutionizing the way we look at music today. In his 50-year career, he put 76 singles on the best selling charts and recorded more than 75 albums. Additionally, he earned 12 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was welcomed back to Georgia in a heartwarming ceremony in which "Georgia on my Mind" became the state's official song.

Like many successful filmmakers today, director Taylor Hackford began his career in documentaries. Of most importance, he won an Oscar for the short "Teenage Father" back in 1978, he put together "Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll" about Chuck Berry in 1987, and later, produced the Muhammad Ali story about the Rumble in the Jungle entitled "When We Were Kings." Although his mainstream films like "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Against All Odds," and "White Nights" earned popular distinction, it is under the guise of a documentary that he approaches "Ray," a musical biography that unfolds in chronological order with tenderness and devotion, yet carefully inserts flashbacks into Charles' youth. The film also incorporates the unique visual style of Paul Hirsch, transitioning images of bottle trees to sheets of music to childhood memories by design. And with slow, dark fade-ins, it quietly projects the sense of blindness.

Ray Charles said he liked country music because it told a story. And one of the reasons the film is successful is the way it uses his music as a narrative element - it tells a story. From the initial hit, "I've Got a Woman" to other unforgettable ones like "Drown in My Own Tears" and "I Can't Stop Loving You," each song is intentionally interwoven into the story in a way that explains Charles' mood and emotions. Whether or not the songs actually evolved in this manner is irrelevant because the intent is to illustrate his state of mind musically. Of particular amusement is the way in which the classic "Hit the Road Jack" came to be - out of a tussle between Charles and vocalist, Margie Hendricks.

Very seldom do you have the opportunity to witness a performance that is so genuine, so effortless, and captivating as the one Jamie Foxx puts on in "Ray." Yet to say that Foxx gives an impression, an imitation, or a caricature would be an injustice. This is a role that Foxx was born to play, ever since he began studying piano at the age of three and continued study with a university scholarship. Sure, he prepared for the role by attending classes at the Braille Institute, spent weeks walking around with his eyes sealed shut, and immersed himself in a variety of blues and jazz recordings. But it's the way he embodies the persona of Charles - mind, body, and soul - that just comes across as natural. The posture, the balance, the warmth, the grit, the look - it's all there, not to mention the actual piano playing. And when you audition with Ray Charles himself and he says, "he's got my life down pretty good," there can be no greater complement.

My only complaint about the film is that it doesn't paint a complete picture, balancing the positive with the negative. Rather, the struggles take center stage - his womanizing, his doping, and his family neglect. Yes, it is difficult to condense a 50-year career into a two-hour film. And certainly, the film's intent is to show a different side of Ray that we haven't seen. But you can still be true to your character and show some semblance of redemption. Instead, the film abruptly skips over crucial moments in his life - learning Braille from the school of the blind, developing early music skills, and the consequences of his mother's death. Furthermore, it fast-forwards through his final 30-40 years as if they were an open epilogue, merely grazing through the contributions he made to black charities, education, and the arts as well as the crowning achievements of his career. Did his family life improve after his rehab? Did he continue to womanize and father children? And what ever became of the strong supporting characters in his life?

Sadly, Ray Charles passed away on June 10, 2004 from liver failure at the tender age of 73, shortly after filming ended. A national treasure, Ray Charles shaped the pop culture landscape like no other, inspiring new forms of music like rock n' roll and all kinds of musicians from Elvis Presley to Stevie Wonder to the Rolling Stones. The film is a wonderful reflection on the man behind the music, detailing personal tragedies and heroism we never knew. Although the focus is predominantly on trials and tribulations, the resounding triumph can be found in his music. With an Oscar worthy performance from Jamie Foxx and an expert musical narrative, "Ray" stands out as a vibrant, compassionate, and honest reflection. Said Ray, "I was born with the music in me, that's the only explanation I know of." And it's the only explanation we need - one that rings true as the epitome of pure genius.



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