Have you heard the rumor that Stevie Wonder can see? There are some pretty compelling anecdotes that support this theory. Former National Basketball Association (NBA) star Shaquille O’Neal tells the story that the Motown legend once said “What’s up Shaq?” without the supposedly blind singer knowing he was present. There is also a video of Stevie Wonder catching a falling microphone stand during a concert. His condition is something he has had to live with since he was an infant, the result of a combination of his premature birth and high oxygen levels in the incubator. If one cannot see, it then begs the question how one can play the piano like he does? Actually, Stevie Wonder is not the first blind (or African American musician without sight) piano player. The only reason I bring up this still living musical legend is to introduce you to his forebear, the person who put the Ray (2004) in Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx).
Not that you would know whether Ray is born blind, at first. We start with him boarding a bus in Jim Crow Florida in 1948, and able to get a free ride by lying and saying that he had been wounded while landing on Omaha Beach during World War II. He travels around for a while, playing music in a variety of places. The first is in a night club, though his stay there is not long as he is exploited in a variety of ways. The next is with a white country band, which is when he begins donning his trademark sunglasses to hide his infirmity. It is while on tour with them that Ray is introduced to something that would haunt him for much of his adult life: heroin. While in the grips of the drug, he has flashbacks to when he was a child (C. J. Sanders). His single mother, Aretha Robinson (Sharon Warren), did what she could for him and his younger brother, George (Terrone Bell). One day, while the two brothers are playing, an accident leads to George drowning in a wash basin. Distraught, Ray begins to go blind, a condition worsened by the homemade remedy Aretha smears into his eyes. Young Ray finds solace in music, but he cannot outrun the pain as an adult, hence the use of illegal substances. It is his piano playing that brings him the fortune for which he became well known, playing music that his critics view as devil music for its provocative lyrics (for the 1950s). An early example of this is the song “Mess Around,” which is introduced to him by Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) of Atlantic Records, the first big time record producer to discover Ray. Despite the lyrics, he falls in love with Della Bea, who is the daughter of a preacher. She is not thrilled with his mixing of gospel and soul genres, but knows that his talent is such that he can provide a good living for their family after they are married. This Ray does, but it comes at a price. Not long after they are wed, she discovers his drug habit. When she confronts him, he storms out on her while pregnant. The life of a professional musician already involves many days out on the road, and the tension of his heroin addiction keeps him away more than most. He adds to this by having affairs. There are a number of paramours, but the main one is a member of the back-up singing trio he forms for his band called the “Raylettes,” Margie Hendricks (Regina King). Such is their carrying on with each other that it results in Margie getting pregnant. At this point, Margie demands that Ray leave Della. Instead, Ray writes perhaps his most famous song, “Hit the Road Jack,” which Margie takes as a sign that she should embark on her solo career. While his personal life appears to be out of sorts, to say the least, his professional life flourishes. He eventually leaves Atlantic Records for a better deal with more creative control. This is when he makes the song “Georgia on My Mind,” which is in part his response to the growing Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is an important issue for him, and he seemingly cuts off a number of concert opportunities when he declares that he will not play in venues where African Americans are forced to sit in the balcony as they are throughout the South. Still, the one constant through all this is his heroin addiction. There is an arrest during the 1960s, though he is not charged because the police found it in his hotel room without a warrant. The real test comes in the 1970s when, after a concert in Canada, customs agents find the illegal substance on him and again he is put in jail. This time, he is ordered to go to treatment. Remarkably, Della has stayed with him through all this, and still Ray does not want to admit he has a problem. It takes him learning that Margie has died of an overdose to make him realize that he needs to get clean. He checks himself into a rehabilitation clinic, and in his withdrawals he finally faces his demons. The main one has always been him blaming himself for George’s death. In his fevered dreams, both Aretha and George forgive him, which gives him the peace he has long sought. With that, he is able to leave the clinic sober, and does not relapse for the rest of his life. The film closes with the state of Georgia making “Georgia on My Mind” the official state song.
Ray is one of those biopics that gives the darker side of the music industry, which makes me wonder why this is such well plumbed cinematic fodder. Then again, we tend to idolize our popular culture icons a bit too much, so making these into a morality tale as this does could be a good thing. I simply worry that “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll” is too much of a draw for our young people. Anyone who watches a movie like this one should probably think twice about such a lifestyle. What interests this Catholic reviewer the most, however, is Della. Recently, I have been rewatching Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994) documentary series. In talking about the Catholic George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s marital problems with his first wife, Helen Woodford, it is said that they could not divorce because of their Faith. I bring this up simply to illustrate the issues with divorce and Christianity. Babe Ruth and Ray Charles were both philanderers of some repute, but they did not divorce their wives. While Helen eventually agreed to a separation from Ruth, Della stood by Ray. Usually, in films this is cast as a dogmatic, narrowly traditional view of the institution of marriage. I can understand this attitude to a certain degree. When a spouse behaves as Ray does, it is natural to want to see their union dissolved. Further, it is not like the Church completely forbids this outcome, and will annul a marriage when the conditions are right. Yet, it is lengthy and slow process, and there is good reason for this to be the case. In Catholicism, marriage is a sacrament, something that God’s own hand is upon. One should not lightly contravene that which God makes. Now, Della and Ray were not Catholic. Still, they come from a background that said that one did not seek divorce, even under adverse circumstances as they experienced. At the same time, this should not be a green light for Ray to act as he does and essentially get away with it in terms of his marriage. While I do not know the specifics of Della’s faith, I am sure that she was not without recourse. All the same, I applaud her for her fortitude.
There are a number of reasons for watching Ray. The first is Jamie Foxx’s performance. He does a good job of becoming the legendary singer. There is also his music, which is always great to hear. The subject matter is not one I would show to younger audiences, though it does have a PG-13 rating. Still, I would limit this one to adult audiences. If you are interested in a nice redemption story, you can certainly do worse than this one.