A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Birth of Ray Charles, 1930
On this day in 1930, Ray Charles was born. Six times married, the father of 12 children, Charles also found time to help create what is now known as soul music, a fusion of gospel, jazz and blues, a prime example being his song Georgia. Sighted at birth, Charles started losing his vision when he was five and was completely blind by the age of seven, thanks to glaucoma. Charles was playing in bars in his early teenage years, by the time he was 19 he was having his first hits. Ten years later, in 1959, he recorded his most famous song, What’d I Say, a song that crossed the race divide in the USA, introducing the notion of soul to many many a rock’n’roller. In spite of these achievements, Ray Charles’s legacy is not secure – acknowledged as important musically (a black musician releasing a record called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962 is bold verging on the dangerous) and politically (he wouldn’t play segregated gigs), with a heroin habit that would render him cool for cats, a voice that went from a squeak to a growl, Charles seems to come lower down the pantheonic pecking order than, say, Roy Orbison or Chuck Berry. Perhaps that’s because of his eclecticism, perhaps because he just kept going, producing records even when no one really wanted them. Or maybe it’s the many cover versions he turned out, this being a culture that values the terrible self-penned work above the inspired, beautiful cover. Unlike many a star in music, Charles was a musician first – “I can’t retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver,” he once said. Ironically it was his liver that retired from him – he died on 10 June 2004 of liver failure.
Ray (2004, dir: Taylor Hackford)
Ray Charles died not long after providing new voicings to some of his old songs for the long film that bore his name. Taylor Hackford directs, Jamie Foxx astounds as Ray, a performance so good, that as with Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, you stop watching for tell-tale lapses within seconds of the actor hitting the screen. It is in many ways a “by the milestones” piece – Ray Charles followed from the death of his brother, his blindness, his early musical precocity, his first gigs, all the way to Charles standing up against racial segregation, the fame and the drugs, the women, the whole damn thing. Ray is the film for lovers of period detail, the early years from the early 1950s up to his golden years with Atlantic Records being the highlight of this film – the clothes, the cars, the clubs are all gorgeously rendered. Joint highlight – Hackford manages to make us understand why Ray Charles was important, why he was great, he makes his music seem fresh and vital again. In this he’s abetted by Jamie Foxx, with a performance that had Oscar written all over it from its first seconds. It’s true that the performance is better than the film, but watch the film and give it its due – it’s only on the home stretch, after we’ve had two hours of prime biopic, as Hackford and screenwriter James L White try to fit too much into the half hour or so remaining, that it stops being flat-out amazing. And by then we’ve had our entertainment.
- Jamie Foxx – was any performance more convincing?
- A biopic about a musician that concentrates on the music
- The story of a black blind man that doesn’t play the race or disability violin
- A labour of love – it took Hackford 15 years to get financing
© Steve Morrissey 2013