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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005
Let the good (and bad) times roll
Say what you will about the Hollywood biopic, but no matter how much they play with the truth, no matter how predictable they are in laying out a series of moments that make up a life, they're nothing if not democratic. For while the subjects of biopics are invariably the super-successful or talented, there's always this populist impulse to tear them down a little, to show the foibles, weaknesses, and darker impulses that make them more human, more like the rest of us.
Thus millionaire playboy Howard Hughes in "The Aviator" (opening in March) is cursed with crippling phobias; comedian Peter Sellers' onscreen charm and wit is undercut by constant philandering in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" (opening later this month); and playwright J.M. Barrie is shown as teetering on career failure and writer's block in "Finding Neverland" -- despite the fact that he was actually one of the most bankable writers of his day. Even Alexander the Great, in Oliver Stone's "Alexander" (also opening in March), is wracked by a mother complex and confusion over his own sexuality, issues so tormenting that he can't even enjoy conquering most of the known world.
Americans love to believe in the democratic, leveling myth of triumph over adversity, which is why biopics require it, or even -- in the case of J.M. Barrie -- manufacture it. With "Ray," director Taylor Hackford's biopic of the legendary blind singer/pianist Ray Charles, we get what amounts to a grand slam of adversity. In becoming a fabulously talented, wealthy, and much-loved musical superstar, Ray has to overcome not only a disability and dirt-poor childhood, but also drugs and discrimination.
Of course, triumph he does, or he wouldn't be having a film made about him in the first place. But Hackford is honest enough to not just shoot a hagiography. In one scene in "Ray," one of the singer's lovers will say, to his face, "You're a cold-hearted bastard," and there's evidence enough here for the viewer to agree.
Ray Charles had a fairly long life -- he passed away last December at the age of 74 -- but the film is wisely focused on only his ascent to stardom, following the musician from his first gigs at age 18 in 1948, to the late '60s when he overcame both drug busts and the drugs themselves. We watch him metamorphose from an amiable, talented youth, constantly on guard against those who would take advantage of him, to a highly accomplished but domineering pro, more than willing to use his power to take advantage of others.
"Ray" captures well the ecstasy of live performance, but it also examines the ruthless, exploitative nature of the music business. The young Ray, fresh off the bus from north Florida, finds himself playing Seattle honky-tonks where both the band leader and his manager cheat him out of his fair share, and deliberately keep him dependent on them for gigs. His blindness is a fact they frequently remind him of to keep him scared and dependent.
Cue the flashbacks to Ray's hardscrabble childhood, where his washerwoman mom tells him sternly, "Don't ever let anyone turn you into a cripple." Ray learns to get paid in single dollar bills, and moves into other gigs, where it soon becomes clear he's the person people are paying to see. The dual nature of his character starts to emerge: He courts and marries a preacher's daughter, Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington), while also picking up a heroin habit on the road.
Like most films on musicians, "Ray" has plenty of bull when it comes to the creative process. It's doubtful "Hit The Road, Jack," just flowed out of his mouth during a heated hotel-room argument with one of his back-up singers/lovers. But what "Ray" does get across is the dilemma facing almost every artist: how to find one's own voice.
Ray Charles began his career in the clubs doing a very good derivation of Nat King Cole, but, while you can make a good living being an imitator (just ask Green Day), true fame lies in being unique. The film sketches out the tension Ray felt between giving people what they already knew in the clubs and being pushed by his peers -- people like Della Bea and Atlantic label head Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) -- to do something fresh. Eventually Ray settles onto a fusion of gospel and R&B, a somewhat scandalous combination that enraged the devout even as the records -- like "I Got a Woman" and "Drown in my Own Tears" -- soared up the charts. Some things, apparently, never change.
Jamie Foxx ("Collateral") does an impeccable impersonation in the lead, though unlike Val Kilmer in "The Doors," he doesn't actually sing onscreen, instead letting the magic of overdubbing provide Ray's own utterly distinctive voice. He does have Ray's moves just right: the beatific smile, the way he kind of hugs himself with glee, the tilt of the head, the unseeing but never tentative gait. What he seems to nail particularly well is how Ray could use his disarming, aw-shucks manner to his own effect, whether it was picking up women or renegotiating a record contract.
That last scene is particularly revealing, which Ray leaves independent label Atlantic, which had nurtured his career for years, in favor of a lucrative deal with the more corporate ABC. In a sense, it's a triumph. Ray retained the rights to his own masters, something almost unheard of in an industry which systematically deprives artists of rights. On the other hand, it was a stark betrayal of Atlantic, which had stuck with him through good and bad, and felt a strong personal connection with the artist. Business as usual, you could say, but it's indicative of how Ray demanded total loyalty from those closest to him but rarely offered it in return. He spends much of the film railing against those who'd cheat him out of his hard-earned money, but he cheated on Della Bea every chance he got.
In that sense, "Ray" is an adult film, mature enough to recognize that it's possible to love and admire someone, even if he is kind of a jerk. Woody Allen, in his mea culpa film "Sweet and Lowdown," offered up the argument that poor personal behavior can be excused if the end result is great art. I'm not sure "Ray" agrees with that. Hackford -- following the current school of pop-psych in American cinema -- identifies specific traumas in Ray's youth that drive him to drugs to ease the pain, and women to ease the loneliness. But the film's ending -- despite its rather forced attempt at closure -- insists that an explanation is not an excuse. Sooner or later you've got to face the music.