Taylor HACKFORD, like many others, has no trouble remembering the first time he met Ray Charles. It was 1987, not long after Hackford had directed “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a documentary about Chuck Berry, and produced “La Bamba,” a widely praised biopic about teen idol Ritchie Valens. For Charles, ever vigilant about protecting his artistry, Hackford was one of the few filmmakers with enough credibility to earn an audience with the iconic star whose groundbreaking 50-plus year career hurdled nearly every barrier in pop music.
When Charles’ son, Ray Jr., approached Hackford about doing a film on his father, the director hurried down to Charles’ RPM Studios to meet the man whose music he’d admired since he heard “I’ve Got a Woman” back in the fifth grade. Hackford sat patiently in Charles’ office until Ray strode up to him, stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, Taylor, I heard lots about you -- put some skin in the pocket.”
During the meeting, Charles glided across the room, keeping up a constant patter, never reaching out to guide himself past a table or chair. “Ray was walking around like it was nothing,” Hackford recalls. “He said, ‘Did you see those Lakers on TV last night? Man, they were in trouble till Magic made that last shot. No one could guard him.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This must be a complete hoax. This guy can see!’ ”
When it comes to compelling lives, it’s hard to top the heroic odyssey of this blind man from the Deep South who emerged as one of modern music’s most influential artists before dying this June at 73. Born into poverty in rural Georgia in 1930, Charles lost his sight at 6 and was orphaned at 15, but before his mother died, she told him, “You will never hold a tin cup and beg.” Fiercely independent ever after, Charles not only became a star, but refused to be confined to the R&B; ghetto. Once Hackford heard Charles’ whole story he thought to himself -- who wouldn’t want to make a movie out of that life?
Seventeen years later, after Hackford finally got the film made, “Ray” is blazing like a comet, buoyed by stellar reviews, box-office success and a tidal wave of best actor Oscar buzz for Jamie Foxx’s incandescent portrayal of the singer. But when Hackford pitched the story of the indomitable Charles, he was turned down everywhere. After years of research and abortive attempts to complete the project, Hackford finally ended up in 2002 with a finished script written by James L. White, who’d worked on several unproduced biopics. The only person who took an interest in the project was Philip Anschutz, the Denver-based real estate and media tycoon who agreed to co-finance the film with a studio partner. Hackford took the project out to all the major studios, with Foxx attached to star. Everyone, including Warners, Sony, Fox and Paramount, took a pass, even with Anschutz’s investment.
According to Hackford, the studios thought the project, eventually made for $40 million, involved too much risk and expense. The executives were concerned about backing what was essentially a period African American film; too black, they said, to appeal to white audiences, too old-fashioned to appeal to the young hip-hop crowd. Black films don’t travel, they told him, so no one could count on any overseas income either.
Hackford went back to Anschutz, who agreed to finance the entire film and find a distributor afterward. “Phil really loved Ray Charles,” Hackford says. “He was touched by his music. He’s a moral conservative and I’m an old-fashioned liberal, but when it came to Ray and what he meant to us, we felt exactly the same way.”
Anschutz isn’t just a moral conservative. He’s Hollywood’s leading moral conservative, known in Variety-ese as a “faith-based billionaire.” An evangelical Presbyterian who has backed a number of conservative causes and politicians, including Colorado senatorial aspirant Pete Coors, Anschutz has established several production companies that have invested heavily in a variety of family-friendly films, most notably this year’s Jackie Chan flop, “Around the World in 80 Days.”
It’s impossible not to wonder why a devout family-values advocate would bankroll a movie about an inveterate womanizer who endured years of heroin addiction, swore like a sailor and earned his stardom with a string of sex-drenched R&B; hits, notably “I’ve Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say.” Alas, Anschutz isn’t talking; the press-shy financier, who hasn’t given a formal interview since 1976, wouldn’t comment. Hackford says Anschutz had one nonnegotiable precondition -- the film had to have a PG-13 rating, which precluded the kind of salty language that Hackford, a lifelong music connoisseur, assumed was commonplace among R&B; musicians of the time.
“It was a big issue with us,” says Hackford, who began his career in the late 1960s producing blues concerts and documentaries at KCET. Music remains close to his heart. When we first had lunch, Hackford arrived with the new biography of Howlin’ Wolf under his arm. He lives part-time in America’s most music-friendly city, New Orleans, where last year he filmed most of “Ray.” Hackford says he and Anschutz had such bitter fights over the PG-13 dictum that he twice walked off the project. “I basically told him, ‘If you want to sugarcoat this, put it on TV on some religious channel.’ But if it’s a real movie, it has to tell the truth. When it comes to Ray’s life, I thought it deserved an R, maybe even an X.”
But when the director shared his concerns, he got a surprising response. “Ray said, ‘Man, don’t listen to me now. Listen to me back then. I didn’t use [swear words] in the ‘50s.’ ” The film’s screenwriter, White, an African American who grew up in the South, concurred. “When Mr. Charles came up, black men didn’t curse a lot, especially not in public. Black men had to make themselves look presentable -- even if they were a janitor, they’d put on a three-piece suit to walk to work. So they were careful about how they talked.”
Hackford finally relented on the language issue. But to get a PG-13 he still had to fight with the MPAA, which normally gives an R to films that portray drug use. Hackford beseeched the ratings board to make an exception for “Ray.” “If this were a fictional film, they wouldn’t have allowed it,” he says. “But this movie is about an artist whose addiction could destroy everything he created. I told them if they were ever going to encourage people to make a choice in their lives, why not show someone who made the right choice, who chose their art, not self-destruction?”
The movie business has long had an insatiable appetite for films about artists and their struggles, be it with their muse, their demons or their lovers. It’s a wide net, as filmmakers tend to envision virtually everyone as a tormented artist, from boxers like Jake La Motta to mathematicians like John Forbes Nash. Each year at Oscar time we get a hefty dose of dramas about artists and their discontents. A roster of recent entries includes “The Hours,” “The Pianist,” “Frida” and “A Beautiful Mind,” as well as “Sylvia,” “De-Lovely,” “8 Mile” and “Adaptation.”
What distinguishes “Ray” from most biopics is that it doesn’t powder its artist-hero in fairy dust or sanitize him with saintly cliches, as happens all too often in films about African Americans. The movie grapples with a difficult psychological truth -- that the same stubborn fury that fueled Charles’ survival instincts and insatiable drive as a musician also cut him off from friends and lovers, leaving him emotionally remote and a prisoner to his self-destructive appetites. As Owen Gleiberman put it in Entertainment Weekly, “Ray’s tragic flaw is the flip side of his most admirable quality: As a musician and a man, he’s wired not to compromise his will.”
“Ray” also takes pains to show how Charles’ art intersected with the politics of his time. One of the film’s most telling scenes portrays a reunion between Charles and Quincy Jones (played by Larenz Tate) at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. By then, Quincy had been living in Paris, where black music was appreciated as art, not disposable jukebox fare. When he hears Ray is going off to play one-nighters across the South, Quincy says, with thinly veiled contempt: “Down South? Man, I can’t do that no more. A black man’s a ‘boy’ in Mississippi, even if he’s 80 years old.” Ray airily dismisses Quincy’s concerns. But within a few years it is Charles who refuses to perform at a concert in Georgia because the audience inside is segregated.
The exchange offers an intriguing insight into the elastic art of biopic storytelling. Quincy Jones never met up with Charles at Newport, though the topic was discussed elsewhere. The film uses similar license in a scene where Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun shares his concern with Charles over the musician’s heroin habit. It didn’t take place at all; it was based on a conversation Ertegun had with Eric Clapton when the guitarist recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s.
David Ritz, who collaborated with Charles on his autobiography, “Brother Ray,” recently wrote a piece in Slate complaining about the film’s omissions, saying it ignores the jazz side of Charles’ makeup, his post-heroin drinking and the death of Charles’ mother, which Ritz calls “the crucial heartbreak of his early life.” Virtually every biopic endures similar criticism -- let’s call it the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” school of grievances -- usually from people who see the movie’s subject only from their particular vantage point.
“What Ritz is essentially saying is, ‘I’m the only one who really knows Ray Charles,’ ” Hackford says. “What did he want -- a 14-hour movie? There are times when you have to take dramatic license. You can’t just get the facts right, you have to be true to the emotions too.”
Jones, a lifelong friend who was 14 when he first met Charles, confirms that the Newport Fest conversation is true to life. “We talked about that stuff all the time,” he explains. Playing the Chitlin Circuit, as it was known in the South in that era, black musicians had to endure all sorts of indignities. One night, when the black hotels were all full, Jones says he and singer Little Jimmy Scott slept in a funeral parlor next to a row of corpses.
“It wasn’t that much different in Las Vegas even in the late ‘60s,” Jones says. “Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne would work the main rooms in Vegas, but they couldn’t even go into the casinos. In Europe, the first time you got off a boat or a plane, it was different. They valued our music. In America, they figured if the music was played by a black man in a bordello, it couldn’t be worth very much, could it?”
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Charles’ ability to break boundaries as an artist would lead him to confront the even more rigid barriers of race in society. As Jones says, “Ray was a sightless man with more vision than anyone could imagine.” In an era when the civil rights movement was fighting segregation in American society, Charles was in the vanguard of integrating American music. And while the history books credit political figures as the driving force in societal change, who’s to say that Charles’ ability to touch the soul of white pop and country fans didn’t have just as much impact on societal prejudice?
“The things Ray Charles did to change American culture were just as important as any sit-ins or demonstrations in the civil rights movement,” Hackford says. “When he first got on that bus in Georgia and went to Seattle to launch his career, it was like Lenin getting into a sealed boxcar and going to Russia to foment revolution. When Ray started, there was no black music on the top of the charts. But once white teenagers started listening to black music in their rooms, how could they continue to believe that black people were inferior ever again?”
It’s a message that continues to resonate today. After Hackford completed “Ray,” he took the film to Kansas City for a research screening before a racially mixed audience. The test scores were so phenomenal that nobody believed them. “The studio people thought we must’ve cooked the books,” he says. Finally, Hackford’s agent persuaded Universal president Ron Meyer to see the film, knowing Meyer used to hitchhike to the Hollywood Palladium as a teenager to watch Charles perform. Unlike the other studios’ executives, who had private screenings, the Universal top brass saw the movie in Marina del Rey with a boisterous audience. The scores were just as good -- in fact, the audience rating for Jamie Foxx’s performance was higher than any numbers in the studio’s database. Universal agreed to distribute the film.
“People always talk about how much we’re divided as a country,” says Marc Shmuger, Universal Pictures vice-chairman. “But what you got from this film was a sense of healing.”
Ray Charles’ message was his music, which turned out to be just as liberating as any inspirational speech or well-meaning legislation. By the time of his death, that message had spread the gospel far and wide. Screenwriter White remembers the first time he talked with Della Bea Robinson, Charles’ ex-wife, about the complexities of their relationship. Pointing to the door leading into her room, she offered a simple parable. “On this side of the door Ray belonged to me,” she said. “And on that side of door, Ray belonged to the world.”