Tue, Dec 07, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Ray Charles' true grit exposed

Before he died, Ray Charles said `that's the truth' about a new film that tells his story of a harsh upbringing, musical genius and drug addiction

AFP , London

A new movie looking at the life of Ray Charles stars Jamie Foxx.

PHOTO: AP

It took Taylor Hackford 15 years to find financing for his film on Ray Charles, a no-holds-barred story about how a blind black boy from impoverished rural Georgia became a rhythm and blues legend.

The American filmmaker finally found one investor, a Ray Charles fan from Colorado, to put up the money for the film's entire budget of US$35 million.

It turned out a good bet as Ray raked in US$65 million in its first four weeks in the US and its star Jamie Foxx was tipped for an Oscar for best actor.

It is scheduled to show in other regions in the coming months.

Fearless in showing its subject's character strengths and weaknesses, Ray charts the tragedies and triumphs of a great black musician who turned a handicap into a strength.

"Ray Charles was even more able to get in touch with his feelings because he was blind," Hackford said in an interview.

"He wasn't inhibited. He was letting it come out. He didn't care about being cool, he was cool," said Hackford, who divides his time between London, New York and Los Angeles.

"Ray had anger ... He was more concerned about whether a blind person could do something rather than a black person," he said. "Ray Charles was constantly alone in the dark."

It was his handicap that forged his genius, said Hackford, who is fascinated by the history of African-American music and the underclass.

Beyond the box office success of An Officer and a Gentleman, Hackford in 1987 directed a documentary on rock and roll star Chuck Berry which drew the attention of a son of Charles.

Hackford met Charles for the first time in 1987 and obtained the rights for the film, before spending a decade in the wilderness trying to convince Hollywood to put their bets on a film about a black man.

He found the man for the part in Foxx, a seasoned comedian who has been a pianist since he was three years old and who resembled Charles to the point of being mistaken for him.

Charles had written an autobiography, "but it didn't have an emotional depth to it. He told all the facts. It doesn't tell you how he felt," said Hackford who met with Charles over 15 years.

So, Hackford talked to 35 people who were close to Charles to find out more about him. Charles did not complain and readily confirmed details.

The filmmaker also consulted a black southern American writer to make sure the dialogue in the film was authentic.

Though Hackford is an unabashed admirer of the bluesman, he said "the film depicts him as not too sympathetic."

It shows not only his tragic childhood in Georgia and his climb to stardom, but also his betrayals, his insatiable appetite for sex, his formidable business sense, and his 17-year addiction to heroin.

"He let me tell that story," during meetings in the last 15 years of his life. "He wasn't afraid of the truth. I told him I wouldn't tell the story unless it was the real story."

He added he did not know "if he would have given me the same freedom in the mid-80s."

Adept at gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rock and jazz, Charles constantly mixed musical genres while forging his own style.

Mixing black gospel and the blues, which caused a scandal in the 1950s, Hackford said, "he was the first to mix God's music with the devil's music."

Charles' legendary hoarse voice went quiet on June 10 when he died after a battle with liver disease. He was 73.

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