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February 21, 2005

Ray - Taylor Hackford

Posted by Richard D. North

Directed by Taylor Hackford
certificate 15, 2004

Ray Charles meant a huge amount to the sophisticated few at our public school in the early 1960s. We knew that the blues of the Deep South mattered, and that helped us care a lot abut the Rolling Stones and Cream, when they came along. But Ray Charles was something else. What mattered was the degree to which this wasn't any sort of folk music: it wasn't ethnic. It was modern, manufactured music made for a sophisticated market. Bob Marley pulled off something like the same life-changing trick for me, nearly twenty years later. But Bob was a hippy of sorts: Ray was a flash, slick, dude. And the man howled and screamed: the power of the sustained abandon in his vocals and those of his backing singers, the Raelettes - let something rip in the devoted teenage cognoscenti. There was also a big band jazz ripeness which was outside our usual range. We were knowingly innocent in the way which The Rotters Club (BBC2) has been very good in capturing (though that series focussed on boys not born when we adored Ray). We didn't want youthful, sulky rebellion: we wanted to have a piece of the adult world which we knew better than the older people around us. Ray was it.

I knew very little about Ray's life until his autobiography, Brother Ray (co-written with David Ritz), came out in 1978, and the story it told was every bit as interesting as the music. Ray Charles' sound-world is tough, even unrelenting. As told in his book, so was its creator. Taylor Hackford catches this steeliness wonderfully in his film, Ray. I watched it in a cine-shed on a rainswept Manchester night at about the time when BAFTA were doling out Best Actor to Jamie Foxx, the film's star, 180-odd miles south in London's glittering West End (which cannot begin to match the frantic partying which is routine amongst Manchester's semi-naked good-time city centre crowd). Sure, the performance was a stunning inhabitation of the Ray Charles I had seen live, once, in the Will Rogers Memorial Center, Forth Worth. Charles was then in his sixties, and gave us a full-on, highly-charged show, which had nothing of the old man about it, though it didn't stray beyond the brilliantly professional either. I doubt that Foxx's brilliant impersonation of these performances contained more than a fraction of the acting which Clive Owen gave us in Closer, for which he got only best Supporting Actor (itself an odd award for a part in a four-hander), but that judgement may under-rate what skilled flawless impersonation requires.

Ray is at the very top end of Hollywood biopic: which is to say it's broadly on the money, without being quite gospel. It is up there with Love Me Or Leave Me (1955), Doris Day's account of the singer Ruth Etting. Ray is gloriously un-PC. Some of the white guys are cheerfully but not viciously racist, but most of the behaviour good and bad is in the black world. The film, by the way, seems to express the blackness of its themes by banishing almost all the pure whites and blues from its palette: this is a movie of painterly sepias. Anyway, it is certainly not a white-bashing piece. The white record industry is characterised as remarkably cherishing, if self-interested. But then, Ray Charles did not go in for moaning, whether about his lot as a person, a blind person or a blind black person. This doesn't succeed in making him attractive, but it makes him deeply admirable. He was what we used to call "hard".

The dope-taking, as told in Brother Ray and this film, was under control until it wasn't, and at that point maybe a deal later than would have been kind to his family he banished it, with typical brutality. Similarly, the movie captures the well-documented bleakness of his business relationships. Nobody got in Ray's way. Nor did he apparently take much account of the needs of his family as he accumulated ever-larger houses for their accommodation: he is portrayed as, well, blindly egotistical even when he was looking after them.

And yet the story manages to be uplifting: it is an account of someone who puts prodigious gifts to work for himself and the public, and whose view that most of the rest of his life wasn't nearly as valuable has some rather stark merit. This was, after all, terrific music and such stuff does not tend to flow from well-balanced, family men and women. Ray Charles was almost too strong, but it's hard to complain about that.

Way back when, we disapproved when Ray went commercial. We sneered at his Country phase, and almost certainly dismissed Hit the Road Jack as mush. But then snobbishness is natural to those whose tastes are insecurely-based. Ray is rather good at the disentangling the various phases in Charles' evolution from Nat King Cole imitator, through to his more original variations on, successively, blues, R&B, gospel and the Country & Western. That was a track, and different bits of it pleased and irritated different fans. For his part, he seemed clear and right that all along he had a distinct sound and it was big enough to be used with others' standards, and in any genre which took his fancy. As he said, and the movie shows, they had all been familiar to him for many years: they were all his birthright as an American.

When we adored Ray, it wasn't with a Sinatra fan's bobby-soxer discovery of squirmy-screamy sexiness, nor with an Elvis fan's hip-wriggly crutchiness. Ray brought us the intoxication of Soul. But it isn't surprising that well-brought-up blacks in the US thought it wrong to take Gospel music and turn it into sex music. They were right, in a way: they were struggling for respectability, and here was this dope-head dragging the cause back into the gutter. What they could not have known is that Ray would become one of the very first blacks to become completely mainstream. Isn't that the really extraordinary triumph of his adopting Country, which is the blues of the white working class? And along the way he had brought Soul to the WASP middle classes, which is of course why I owe him so much.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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