December 2004

Ned Bobkoff
Ray Charles-Unchain My Heart

Picture this: You're a little boy. You're blind. You fall down on the floor. You're  bruised. You're crying. You're not able to see your mother, but you know she's in the room. Why won't she pick you  up?  You go into a temper tantrum, and she still doesn't do anything about it. So you give up trying. Silence. You listen, closely. A hummingbird beats its wings outside the window, sucking up  sweetness from a flower. Its hovering out there, in that  direction. Suddenly you have a sense of space, distance, time, and touch that knows no bounds. You rise to the occasion. And you learn to rise to the occasion again and again and again. You learn to see with a third eye, hear with a third ear, and kinetically come alive.  It's a new world out there and you're wide open to it. Most of all, you are not afraid anymore.  

"Ray" is a two and half hour lollapalooza of a film on the life and career of Ray Charles.Scene4 Ray Charles-Unchain My Heart At first glance it appears to copycat the usual biopic formula of innumerable musical films celebrating the "life of " (you fill in the blanks). The film's swing vote, though, lies in the strength of its emotional identity through a keen use of powerful detail. It adheres to Ray Charles' history as an entertainer and wayward husband. And above all, it ignites with his music.  

The believability of Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray, in all of the musician's conflicting and hallucinatory aspects, gathers steam by merging character step by step.  Supporting performers do a bang up job of creating the world surrounding Ray Charles' rise to dominance. And director Taylor Hackford's unerring sense of linking drama to musicality, James White's linked-to-the essentials script, Pawel Edelman's fresh faced cinematography, and Paul Hirsh's editing take the viewer into a remarkable journey. The key to Charles' phenomenal success? A hunger for full, complete, unafraid expression, and an unerring ability to pick it all out on the keyboard, and sing it full throated. Two and a half hours of gutsy gospel blues and bluesy country well worth listening to.   

Take away the flashbacks into Charles' childhood and youth and you lose the film. In some film circles that might be considered a minus. In "Ray" the flash backs are hinged so close to critical moments in Ray Charles' life that they rarely fail to absorb. The crucial  use of detail, rich with immediacy, reveals the touch and feel of being blind, black and marginalized.   

Young Ray Charles watched his brother drown in a washtub in a small backwater Florida town. Was he mesmerized, thinking it is a game, or just not stepping in to help rescue him? His brother's drowning leaves the future entertainer with perpetual guilt. When Ray starts going blind, his mother, Aretha, played with extraordinary true-to-life characterization by Sharon Warren, painstakingly trains her son, a blind black boy, to go out on his own and take risks.  An option that few parents would take without considerable fear, pain and self doubt. It's not the usual high toned baloney that you can do anything. It's more like, this is what you've got, lets see what you can do with it? Strength out of adversity is a theme that many folks can identify with. Sharon Warren's portrayal of Aretha leaves no stone unturned.

Women and drugs take up a large part of the film. Ray Charles' honesty working with director Taylor Hackford, helps reveal the contradictory impact of his womanizing. Even though honesty might be yet another attempt to capture our attention and keep his life going on an upbeat keel. Yet the battle to kick his heroin habit was won, laid to rest, after excruciating twisting and turning to get the poison out of his system. To know that Charles died shortly before the film was released, adds to the puzzle. What else can life be but a super puzzle, with none of the jigsaw pieces fitting into a perfect formation? Unless your name is Aristotle, the fit is, at best, tenuous.   

"Ray" is neither a documentary or a romanticized formula. It is somewhere in between. Like Bill Clinton's presidential library, personality infuses the story. The personal trials, tribulations and accomplishments respected, the ugly details revealed. The syringe is in the viewer's eye; the ear doubles the effect; the history is there.      

©2004 Ned Bobkoff

Ned Bobkoff has worked with performers from
all walks of life, in a variety of community
and cultural settings,
throughout the United States and abroad.

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