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
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
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.