Sunday, November 13, 2005


Natasha and I watched the movie "Ray" Saturday night, and it was good.

"Ray," as I'm sure everybody knows, is the 2004 biographical movie about legendary musician Ray Charles. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about Ray Charles -- in fact, the song I thought I chiefly knew him for wasn't one he wrote at all -- but his impact on music in America is legendary. (I won't embarrass myself by displaying my ignorance and trying to describe it, since I'm not going to do it justice.) I've wanted to see it ever since I saw the preview two years ago, and I'm glad we finally took the chance to borrow a copy from the local Blockbuster's.

The movie, which I'm sure took its share of artistic license with the story of Ray Charles' life, had a curious portrayal of the man. You couldn't help but like Ray Charles the way Jamie Foxx played him, but at the same time, it was hard to respect him much. (Which, of course, shows what a good actor Foxx is.)

The movie shows Ray Charles' steady rise from playing small acts with the McSon Trio in Seattle, moving up to a solo career with Atlantic Records before ultimately landing a lucrative and unprecedented contract with ABC Records.

In that sense, it's uplifting because he's succeeding despite his obvious disability, and it's also uplifting because he was so good at his music, whether it was country, gospel, reggae and blues, or the fusion of those styles and others that made him so famous. And unlike many other artists' careers, at least on screen, there was no moment where his career utterly fell to pieces. He just kept going higher and higher, up to the point that his recording of "Georgia on my Mind" became Georgia's state anthem.

On the other hand, it was hard to think too much of Ray Charles as a person, whatever you might rightly believe of him as a musician. The movie showed him as having at least one long-term affair with one of the female singers in his band, which is kind of hard to view as anything but a moral failure, considering that he was married. And he was also a heroin addict, a habit he initially tried to conceal from his wife and that he repeatedly made excuses for, even after being arrested twice for drug possession.

In the movie at least, the heroin addiction was linked to the death of his younger brother, George, whom he had seen drown in a wash basin when Ray was only 5. The movie depicted Ray as simply watching his brother drown without trying to rescue him or calling for help, as though he thought George were playing a game; according to CNN, he tried to pull him out but couldn't. Either way, I can see why a memory that horrible could lead someone to try to escape through drugs.

And there were other things that made me respect the man wholeheartedly. During the Civil Rights Era, he was scheduled to play a concert in Georgia, but he refused to perform, in protest of the segregation laws in effect. That ended up being a costly move, since he ended up being barred from playing in Georgia for years afterward, but there can be no question it was the right thing to do. It's hard not to respect someone who takes that sort of principled stand.

And as awful as his infidelities to his wife were, the movie shows that he had a measure of character even there. When his long-term mistress in the movie dies, we discover that he's been sending her money every month to help support her and their child.

The movie, to make a long story short, presents Ray Charles as a complex and musically brilliant man. The story it tells isn't a pretty one, but its honesty makes it worth seeing.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

It really is a good movie. I saw it when it was on pay per view a while back. I saw Ray Charles in concert in Greenville, South Carolina over twenty years ago. He put on a fantastic show.