Finishing my degree coursework has meant that I have been able to do some other things I have wanted to for a long time. One of which was to watch the film 'Ray' - the biopic of Ray Charles, that I picked upon ebay last year.
The film traces the life and career of Ray Charles Robinson, from his early life in segregated Florida, the childhood tragedies of the loss of his brother and his eyesight - and his discovery of music. One of the most effective and compelling scenes in the movie depicts the young Ray sneaking away to the village shop, to be taught boogie-woogie piano by an old black 'stride' pianist. The story continues as Ray discovers how to navigate the music industry, discovers women and drugs (both in alarming quantities) and finds success. It covers the successes and the failures, the commercial breakthrough that came from abandoning his 'Nat Cole sound' and merging gospel-music sounds with secular (or even sexy) lyrics, the civil rights stand he made in Georgia, the sales awards, and meteoric rise from obscurity to stardom, his musical genius and constant experimentation with styles of blues, boogie, soul, r&b, country and ballads. The film though does not shy away from the darker side of Charles, the drug abuse and rehab, police raids, womanising, marriage difficulties, falling-out with colleagues and friends.
It's a great film, and Jamie Foxx's portrayal of the Ray Charles is remarkable and powerful and well deserving of the 'best actor' Oscar it received. There were though a number of strange omissions from the story I thought. Charles is never seen playing anything but a piano, never the sax, clarinet or trumpet, all things he mastered at the school for the blind to which he was sent - years which were entirely omitted from the story. Charles' exuberant cross-country motorbike riding and his piloting skills are well documented and could have made great scenes too. Likewise, the tension between his Baptist-background and his hedonistic lifestyle were hinted at (we see Charles on tour never without his Braille Bible), but the tensions therein are not addressed in the film as they are in some biographies. The film closes with a short clip of the elderly Ray Charles himself receiving an award in Georgia and an apology over the ban the state issued him with over his refusal to play to segregated audiences in the 1960s.
I remember first hearing the blues in the 1980s when Ray Charles played a couple of songs at an event filmed for Fats Domino's birthday- and being amazed at the passion, intensity and soul of the music, in comparison to the formulaic pop I had been exposed to as a teenager. A few years later I made my way to the Barbican Hall in London and saw Ray Charles and His Orchestra give a breathtaking performance across musical genres. Charles, by then pretty elderly, his voice cracking and wincing was the consummate showman - whose musical dexterity and domineering charisma held the audience in the palm of his hand.
I was never convinced by the orchestra and choirs of the later years, (or the country and western) but Charles with a small band, singing blues soulfully, with angst and expression dripping from every note on his piano - still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The following is "Drowning in My Own Tears" from the Fats Domino gig.