What Ray gets wrong about Ray Charles.

What really happened.
Oct. 22 2004 6:54 AM

It's a Shame About Ray

Why must biopics sentimentalize their subjects?

Foxx stays true to Ray
Foxx stays true to Ray

Ray, the new biopic directed by Taylor Hackford, satisfies in some wonderful ways: Jamie Foxx miraculously embodies Ray's soul; Ray's own musical voice sounds bigger and better than ever; and several of the supporting performances—Sharon Warren as Ray's mom and Regina King as Margie Hendricks—are heartfelt and powerful. The problem, though, is that 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.

For example, the film focuses on Ray's relationship with his mother, Aretha. Yet the truth is that Ray had two mothers. According to what Ray told me and insisted we include in Brother Ray, an autobiography that I co-authored in 1978, two women dominated his early years: his biological mother, Aretha, and a woman named Mary Jane, one of his father's former wives. "I called Aretha 'Mama' and Mary Jane 'Mother,' " wrote Ray. After her 6-year-old son went blind, Aretha fostered his independence, while Mary Jane indulged him. For the rest of his life Ray was as fiercely self-reliant as he was self-indulgent. Two dynamic women, two radically different approaches to his sightlessness—you can imagine the impact on his character. Ray ignores this phenomenon completely.

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Ray tries to explain Ray's blues—the angst in his heart—in heavy-handed Freudian terms. At age 5, Ray helplessly watched his younger brother, George, drown. The film insists that the guilt Ray felt for failing to rescue George is responsible for the dark side of his soul. Once the guilt is lifted, the adult Ray is not only free from his heroin habit but is liberated—in a treacly flashback—from his emotional turmoil. George's death was certainly traumatic for the young Ray, yet the only time Ray suffered what he termed a nervous breakdown had neither to do with the drowning nor the loss of his sight a year later. "It's the death of my mother Aretha," he told me, "that had me reeling. For days I couldn't talk, think, sleep or eat. I was sure-enough going crazy." That the film fails to dramatize the scene—we learn of Aretha's death in a quick aside from Ray to his wife-to-be—misses the crucial heartbreak of his early life. It happened when Ray was 15, living at a school for the blind 160 miles from home. "I knew my world had ended," he said. The further fact that Ray fails to include a single scene from his extraordinary educational experience is another grievous oversight. It was at that state school where he was taught to read Braille, play Chopin, write arrangements, learn piano and clarinet, start to sing, and discover sex. Ray shows none of that. Such scenes would have been far more illuminating than the unexciting story, which the film does include, of Ray changing managers in midcareer.

The minor characters are another major problem. Take David "Fathead" Newman, the saxophonist who, for over a decade, was Ray's closest musical and personal peer. In Ray, David is portrayed as little more than a loudmouthed junkie. While drugs were part of the bond between David and Ray, the key to their relationship was an extraordinary musical rapport. In real life, David is a soft-spoken, gentle man of few words. As Ray was boisterous, David was shy. Both were brought up on bebop. Like Lester Young/Billie Holiday or Thelonious Monk/Charlie Rouse, they complemented each other in exquisitely sensitive fashion. We neither see nor hear any of this in Ray. And while Hackford features a great number of Ray's hits, he ignores the jazz side of Ray's musical makeup. There's virtually no jazz in Ray, while in real life jazz sat at the center of Ray's soul.

If Fathead is painfully misrepresented, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, owners of Atlantic Records, suffer a similar fate. Among the most colorful characters in the colorful history of the music business, they are reduced to stereotypes. We don't get a glimpse of their quirky sophistication, sharp intellect, or salty wit. Same goes for Mary Ann Fisher, the first female singer to join Ray's band. Mary Ann was an engaging character—sometimes endearing, sometimes infuriating. In Ray she's just a manipulative tart.

Finally, though, Ray is about Ray, and its attempt to define his character. In many ways, the definition is accurate. Foxx brilliantly captures Ray's energy and contradictions. Yet those contradictions are not allowed to stand. The contradictions must be resolved, Ray must live happily ever after. The finale implies that, for all his promiscuity, he is back with Della, the true love of his life, and that, with his heroin habit behind him, it's smooth sailing ahead. The paradoxical strands of his life are tied up into a neat package, honoring the hackneyed biopic formula with a leave-'em-smiling Hollywood ending. 

The truth is far more complex and far more interesting. Ray's womanizing ways continued. His marriage to Della ended in a difficult divorce in 1976. And while he never again got high on heroin, he found, in his own terms, "a different buzz to keep me going." For the rest of his life he unapologetically drank large quantities of gin every day and smoked large quantities of pot every night. While working on his autobiography he told me, "Just like smack never got in the way of my working, same goes for booze and reefer. What I do with my own body is my own business." Ray maintained this attitude until his health deteriorated. In 2003 he told me that he had been diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease and hepatitis C. "If I knew I was going to live this long," he added with an ironic smile, "I would have taken better care of myself." Whatever Ray was—headstrong, joyful, courageous, cranky—he was hardly a spokesman for sobriety.

The producers of Ray make much of the fact that Ray himself endorsed the movie. That's certainly true. He wanted a successful crossover movie to mirror his successful crossover music. He participated and helped in any way he could. In one of our last discussions, Ray reminded me that the process of trying to sell Hollywood began 26 years ago when producer-director Larry Schiller optioned his story. Since then there have been dozens of false starts. It wasn't until his son, Ray Jr., producer Stuart Benjamin, and director Hackford stayed on the case that cameras rolled.

"Hollywood is a cold-blooded motherfucker," said Ray. "It's easier to bone the President's wife than to get a movie made. So I say God bless these cats. God bless Benjamin and Hackford and Ray Jr. Weren't for them, this would never happen. And now that it's happening, maybe I'll have a better chance of being remembered. I can't ask for anything more."

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