By Shawn McKenzie 10/29/2004
I really love the music of Ray Charles. I was very sad when he passed away on June 10th of this year, so I hoped that this movie about his life, Ray, would do him justice. Despite a few problems, I was very satisfied that they did The Genius right.
Young Ray Robinson (C.J. Sanders) was born on September 23, 1930 in Albany, Georgia. His mother, a poor laundry washer named Aretha (Sharon Warren), raised him and his younger brother George (Terrone Bell) alone. One day, when Ray and George were playing, George slipped into a washtub and drowned. That was a major tragedy in his life, and a few other tragedies followed. He developed glaucoma two years later, causing him to lose his eyesight. After teaching Ray how to be independent on his own, his mother sent him to the St. Augustine state school for the blind, where he grew up and learned how to deal with his blindness by developing an acute sense of hearing and touch. He also developed his love for all types of music, notably gospel, R&B, and country music. Ray (Jamie Foxx) grows up and begins touring with a country band called The Florida Playboys as the keyboardist. He ends up getting a gig playing for a woman named Marlene (Denise Dowse), forming a band called The McSon Trio, headed by Ray and jazz guitarist Gossie McKee (Terrence Dashon Howard) at a club called the Rocking Chair, a club that Marlene owns. She takes him in, sleeps with him, introduces him to pot with club announcer Oberon (Warwick Davis), and ends up taking advantage of him, forcing him to leave Marlene and Gossie with friend and fellow musician Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate.) Former band mate Jeff Brown (Clifton Powell) manages him early in his career, where he gets signed with Jack Lauderdale’s (Robert Wisdom) Swing Time label in 1949, bringing along Fathead Newman (Bokeem Woodbine) to be in his house band. With Fathead, he is introduced to the world of heroin. He also learns the value of money, and he doesn’t want to be taken advantage of by people like money manager Wilbur Brassfield (Wendell Pierce.) Not long after that, Lauderdale quickly puts him on the road with R&B guitarist Lowell Fulson (Chris Thomas King.) He records “Confession Blues” on Swing Time. Ray idolized and worshiped the works of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, but longed to try out a new sound of his own. Upstart indie music executives Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff), who were scouting for new sounds, buy Swing Time and sign Ray and his band to Atlantic records in 1952. They wanted Ray to explore fully his new sound along with sound mixer Tom Dowd (Rick Gomez), which Ray did. Ray takes on a new manager named Joe Adams (Harry Lennix) who helps him churn out the hits. Ray records a song written by Ertegun in 1953 called “The Mess Around,” which did decent business. In 1955, his breakthrough hit was “I Got a Woman,” now recorded by his new name Ray Charles (Charles is his middle name; he changed it to avoid confusion with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.) He tours on the Chitlin’ Circuit where he also meets the church-going Della Bea (Kerry Washington), who becomes his wife. While at Atlantic, he recorded many famous hits with a trio of backing singers named the Raelettes, consisting of Mary Ann Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) and Margie Hendricks (Regina King), both of which he had a relationship with. He ends up fathering a child with Margie. In 1959, Ray shifted labels and began to record for ABC-Paramount, provided he could own his own masters, which the record label boss Sam Clark (Kurt Fuller) surprisingly agrees to. Along with his manager at ABC, Milt Shaw (David Krumholtz), his next crazy idea was to go from R&B to country, making him many more hits along the way, including “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” In the ‘60s, Ray refused to obey the Jim Crow laws in his own state of Georgia, banning him for life. In 1966, Ray was busted for heroin possession while flying into Boston’s Logan Airport from Montreal. He stayed in the St. Francis Rehabilitation Clinic to help him kick his heroin habit, which he did. In 1979, the ban on Ray was lifted in the state of Georgia, and in fact, they publicly apologized to him and made “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song. The rest is history.
Before I get to the few problems I had with the movie, I have to acknowledge the top-notch acting from everyone in the cast. Obviously, this is probably Foxx’s finest acting to date. He embodied Brother Ray in the same way Denzel Washington did in the movie Malcolm X. The fact that he is a classically trained pianist helped a lot, but his lip-syncing was great as well (they used the original masters of Ray for Foxx to mimic.) The rest of the cast was excellent, but with so many characters in it, no one really stood out, except for King. She played off Foxx very well, and I felt sorry for her in the end.
Now for my problems with the movie. I wasn’t too crazy about the flashbacks and jumping around back and forth. It made me confused occasionally where we were in his life. I would have liked to have seen young Ray grow up and confront his demons at the beginning of the movie. While I found it interesting that the adult Ray was still haunted by his guilt about his brother in a creative way, we could have seen the back story in the beginning instead of being thrown in during various parts in the movie. Also, I thought that the last forty years of his life were given the short shrift. It went from 1966 to today, otherwise known as the good, non-tragic years of his life, which doesn’t really play well in Hollywood terms. The last years of his life were wrapped up in a post-script, and I felt cheated. Why didn’t we get to see more of Quincy and the work he did with Ray? What about his work with Bill Cosby? What about the work he did on the CBS show “Designing Women” and the Diet Pepsi commercials? What about all of the Grammies he was nominated for and won throughout his career? Okay, maybe it only appeals to the hardcore fan like me, but still, at over 2 ½ hours long, I felt like we were cheated at the end.
Director Taylor Hackford has been hit and miss with his movies, but when it comes to musical biopics, he is pretty good. He produced the Ritchie Valens movie La Bamba, directed the documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, and has now come out with another great one in Ray. While I don’t think that the movie itself will garner any Oscar nominations (blame it on a bad editor), Foxx will definitely get an Oscar nod. The year may not be over yet, but this Georgia boy (or actually Texas boy in the case of Foxx himself) will be on my mind come Oscar night.
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