Throughout the process of making "Ray," the real-life Ray Charles was integral to the film's development. The story pulls no punches about the darker sides of the late musician's life, including lifelong womanizing and decades of heroin addiction. But, says director Taylor Hackford, Charles was interested only in the truth. Early on, Hackford had the script translated into Braille (which the singer learned as a child at a school for the blind in Georgia). Charles read the script and according to the director, made only a few minor changes before approving the story.
Perhaps his most important contribution was his involvement in casting the lead role. The director arranged for actor Jamie Foxx to meet Charles in his recording studio. After they were introduced, Ray Charles demanded the two sit down and play piano together. He had set up two electric pianos to be side by side for the "audition." Together, the two played through the Ray Charles repertoire. The actor, who had attended university on a piano scholarship, initially kept pace. But Foxx floundered when Charles started to improvise the music of jazz great Thelonius Monk. Director Hackford writes of the tense moments that followed. "Ray didn't let up on him. He said, 'Come on, man, it's right under your fingers. Come on, man.' The pressure was almost embarrassing."
Instead, Foxx mastered the passage and won unconditional support for his work in the film.
The storytelling techniques in "Ray" take the musical-biopic genre into new territory, weaving some 40 songs into the life story of the man Frank Sinatra called "the only genius in our business." Beginning with the twin tragedies of Charles's early life - watching his younger brother drown and going blind by the age of 7 - the film tracks the complex relationship between his struggles with personal demons and his songwriting process.
"A lot of the songs came out of his particular struggles," says actress Regina King, who plays Margie Hendricks, a woman Ms. King calls "the musician's muse." At one emotionally charged moment in the film, when Charles is trying to break off the relationship with Hendricks, he comes up with the song "Hit the Road, Jack."
Scene after scene makes the case that seminal moments in the musician's creative development came from dark confrontations with his own problems. There are notable exceptions, such as the signature song "Georgia on my Mind." This song did not grow out of any personal trauma, but out of what he viewed as his home state's tragedy of segregation.
Charles was one of the first musicians to refuse to play under Jim Crow laws. After he walked out of a segregated concert hall in protest, Georgia banned him from the state "for life." This edict was reversed in 1977 when the state welcomed him back and made his song its state anthem.
As director Hackford describes it, "when a song is onscreen, you're seeing that the song came from the emotion and the drama in his life and that the two are necessarily intertwined and related."
King points to the musical catalog of hundreds of Ray Charles songs that span more than half a century and says that condensing that into a single narrative of fewer than 50 songs was not simple, but it was the most effective approach. "Prior to this film, musical biopics gave you a hint of the music," says King, "but they didn't allow the music to tell the story. But with Ray, his music is his story."