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The soul of 'Ray'

Capturing the spirit, if not each event, of the late musical legend's amazing life.

November 03, 2004|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

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.

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