Ray Charles Robinson: 1930-2004. No one involved in the biopic Ray thought he'd be gone before his film arrived in theaters. This wasn't meant to be a posthumous release. Certainly, no one hoped for his death to boost interest in his life and in his music. After all, Mr. Charles worked personally with Jamie Foxx as the actor fine-tuned the look, the personality and the sound of a young, blind piano player, hungry to take on the world.
Ray wasn't born blind. He lost his sight as a young boy of seven. His mama cared for him and taught him how to cope as best she could for a time, then sent him to St. Augustine's, Florida's school for the deaf and blind. After his mother's death (when he was still a teen), Ray hit the road, with his 220-string slung over his shoulder, so to speak.
What follows, onscreen, is a series of music industry vignettes and personal life traumas. Competing themes vie for attention; drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, business betrayals, and deeply internalized grief and guilt rage against the magic of matrimony, the flames of fame and the beauty of a new genre of music only Ray Charles could create.
Ray's mama does everything she can to put him on the path toward self-sufficiency and success in a world not very kind to blind men—or black men. She urges him not to let anyone turn him into a cripple, and to stand up on his own two feet. It takes a while, but Ray does just that. Ray is seen overcoming tremendous obstacles—blindness, prejudice, poverty—to become what he's always dreamed of becoming, a self-possessed man. Likewise, his triumph over drug addiction is inspirational. (There's more to it than that, though; I'll broaden the discussion of how the film portrays that accomplishment in the Conclusion.)
Voices of reason and restraint in Ray's life include Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun's, who gives him his first big break. Ahmet takes the time to sit Ray down and tell him that drugs are going to destroy him if he doesn't change things fast. Ray's wife, Della Bea, while never really putting her foot down, tries to nudge Ray in the right directions. She's devastated when she learns that he's doing drugs, heartbroken when she discovers his infidelity, and desperate to stop him from negatively influencing their two young sons. "Those boys worship you," she pleads with him. "Do you want them to end up using that poison, too?" Ray rightly worries about not being a good father, remembering the damage it did to him not having his daddy around.
Ray, reluctantly at first, makes a sacrificial stand against segregation in the South ("I'm never going to play Jim Crow joints ever again").
Ray is credited for first merging gospel music with the carnality of the sexually tinged love song, and in so doing riles more than a few friends and fans, not to mention enemies and preachers. When he first marries the two forms after a sexual encounter with his wife-to-be, Della Bea, she's mortified. So is one of his bandmates, and at least one of his handlers at Atlantic. "You're turnin' God's music into sex!" a strident protestor shouts. "You're makin' money off the Lord!" But dissent is quickly diluted as soaring sales figures and sprightly radio airplay statistics kick the issue to the curb.
Ray reads, in braille, from Joshua 1. He jokes that he's a sinner "in need of a little prayer" and that he's a soul "that needs savin'." "It's hard to fool me," he says on one occasion, "but it's impossible to fool the Almighty." His mother instructs, "There ain't nothin' free in this world but Jesus." His wife tells him that the "only one who can help you is God." (He responds by informing her that "God don't listen to people like me.")
Early on, as a teenager, Ray is thrust into the sexual embrace of an older woman, who "manages" his fledgling career, but mostly uses him to indulge her fantasies. (It's implied that her appetites wear him out time and time again.) That experience seems to set the stage for a life of sexual excess that's only momentarily halted at the marriage altar. At home, Ray makes a family with Della Bea; on the road he shares his bed with many others, most notably Margie Hendricks, a woman employed as his backup singer.
Women wearing tight, revealing costumes (at least by '60s standards) are given close attention by the camera from time to time. Ray strips off Margie's top, showing moviegoers her bra. Della Bea's bare back gets screen time a couple of times before and after sex with Ray (before and after their wedding). One of Ray's "road girls" intimates by her actions that she wants to give Ray oral sex in the back seat of a car. (He pushes her away.)
Double entendres and sly sexual innuendo crop up more than a few times. A colleague jokes about how fun it would be to have four-way sex. Some of Ray's songs contain suggestive words—and sounds.
Mere months before Ray loses his sight, he watches helplessly as his younger brother drowns (accidentally) in a large tub of water. It's a scene replayed (in Ray's memory) throughout the film. A hallucinatory dream sequence played out while a convulsing Ray is struggling to kick his heroin habit shows the water turning red, as if it is becoming blood.
Ray tackles a man he thinks is cheating him out of his paycheck. Much later, frustrated and angry with himself, he upends a card table. A jilted lover smashes the windshield of his car. Margie slaps him.
Crude or Profane Language
An s-word is joined by a gaggle of milder profanities (more than 50 in all). Jesus' name is abused once; God's name at least a dozen times (most references are combined with "d--n"). A handful of derogatory, racist terms are applied to blacks—and in one case, whites.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The biggest monkey on Ray's back is heroin. His addiction lasts for years, threatening to tear him limb from limb before he wrestles it to the ground. Both sides of his drug use are presented: the highs he becomes enslaved to begin as enjoyable moments to be shared with bandmates. They quickly turn poisonous and destructive. And final—ugly—scenes show Ray going cold turkey, kicking his habit in a rehab facility. Ray is twice arrested for drug possession, but manages to avoid jail time.
Marijuana is smoked by Ray and other characters. Cigarettes and alcohol are all but omnipresent in bars and recording studios.
Other Negative Elements
Ray urges Margie to get an abortion. "You need to go to the doctor or something," he tells her when he finds out she's carrying his baby. "You've gotta get rid of it. ... I'll pay for everything." (Thankfully, Margie doesn't follow his lead.)
Ray isn't a very honest or loyal man, either. Early on, to solicit the good will of a white bus driver, he fibs about having lost his eyesight on the beaches of Normandy. Later, of course, his habit of cheating on his wife (which never really reaps him the whirlwind) shows that he's not learned much since. The quest for money and fame seems to drive Ray every bit as much as his love for music does. Elsewhere, a record company exec bribes a DJ to pump up one of Ray's new songs.
Critics never see eye-to-eye when it comes to biographical films. "Ray is the rare Hollywood biopic that does justice to the heroism, as well as the demons, of an American genius," writes Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman. Writing for Slate, David Ritz disagrees: "Ray is a saccharine movie while Ray himself was anything but a saccharine man. He was a raging bull. Sentimentalizing his story may make box office sense, but, to my mind, it trivializes the compelling complexity of his character."
My two cents? The story, while excellently told on many levels, allows glimmers of what might have been a VH-1 special peak through. More philosophically, too many of Ray's adult dilemmas are blamed on a single childhood trauma. And too many complicated issues are quickly resolved when he suddenly comes to grips with his guilt over that catastrophe.
What everyone, including me, agrees on is that star Jamie Foxx hands in a virtuoso performance. It's one thing to see an actor, say, Dame Judi Dench, skillfully play a historical character, say, Queen Victoria, whom we've seen no more of than can be revealed in oil paintings and grainy photographs. It's quite another matter for Mr. Foxx to bring the beloved, very visible, often videotaped, quite current Ray Charles back to life without unduly adjusting our collective memories.
What's more important than friendly banter about how the film treats the historical figure of Ray Charles, though, is how it chooses to present Ray's dalliances with drugs, despair and easy women. Ray doesn't avoid the obvious moral of the story, which is wrapped up in the truth that a man can only be free when he's not a slave to vice. But it also seems to want to celebrate the idea that it is only out of conflict, pain and captivity that passionate music can be birthed.
Those inclined to wish upon themselves a "testimony" of recovery and transcendence such as Ray's shouldn't forget that for every Ray Charles, who eventually overcame sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll to live a long and prosperous life in the limelight, there are hundreds, if not thousands of anonymous souls who die of an overdose (even in this story, one of Ray's lovers ODs), waste away with a sexually transmitted disease, or simply wash out, unremembered and unfulfilled.