September 14th, 2010
In 2004, only a few short months after Ray Charles passed away, Hollywood celebrated the life and legacy of the legendary R&B singer in a critically acclaimed biographical film. Anchored by a stunning performance by Jamie Foxx, “Ray” would go on to win two Academy Awards and introduce a younger generation to a giant of American song. But director Taylor Hackford’s most impressive feat may have been the film’s nuanced, evenhanded portrayal of Charles’ behind the scenes battle with serious heroin addiction.
In the attempt to portray his life in full, the film starts, appropriately, at the beginning, with a young Ray Charles Robinson growing up in the poverty of 1930’s Georgia. With his hard-working mother emphasizing the strength and resilience he would need to make it in an unforgiving world, a young Ray would find his fortitude tested immediately, when he witnessed his younger brother’s accidental drowning, a scene that would haunt him for the rest of his life. When he began to lose his vision shortly thereafter, his mother challenged him to overcome it, telling him that it was up to him to never let anyone or anything make him into a cripple.
In response, Ray was able to channel his energy into his earliest love: the piano. By 1948, he was performing at bars in and around the Seattle area. It was here that he was first introduced to drugs in the form of marijuana, which venue promoters would offer him in order to calm pre-performance nerves. As he signed a record deal and hit the road in support of his career, the stresses of life on tour began to sink in. With that came depression, and what that, drugs. Plagued by flashbacks of his brother’s death, he found two new ways to escape- women, and heroin.
Though marriage, children and skyrocketing career success could have all potentially acted as stabilizing factors for his life, Ray’s depression and guilt over the death of his brother had taken hold, and he was now as addicted to womanizing as he was to heroin. Neither would prove to be beneficial for his long-term stability, as his wife would discover both in short order. Heroin addiction, as Ray was to find out, is never something you can keep on the side.
Neither, it seems, were the women. By 1956, Ray Charles had brought one of his lovers- a backup singer named Margie- into his band, and his life. When an unexpected pregnancy pushed their relationship to the breaking point, he had inspiration for one of his most famous songs (“Hit The Road, Jack”), but it was to serve as yet another signpost along his road to personal ruin. Although the turmoil would inspire him to take a powerful stand for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement by refusing to play at segregated clubs in the South, his demons were never far, as the film shows by dramatizing his arrest on tour for possession of heroin. Though supported by friends and family, he again finds himself unable to kick his powerful heroin habit.
The film goes on to portray what might be called the lowest period in the life of Ray Charles, where, despite great personal success, the singer is forced to deal with the death of his lover (and mother of his 3-year old son) Margie and a second arrest for heroin possession in Montreal while on tour. Sent this time to court-ordered rehab, the film pulls no punches as Foxx effectively channels the deep physical, mental and emotional torment of heroin withdrawal. Dope sick and hallucinating, Charles remembers his mothers words: stand on your own two feet. Don’t let anyone make you into a cripple.” It is then, and only then, that he realizes that he has allowed his heroin addiction to cripple him more than his blindness ever could. It is a powerful statement about the insidious strength of drug addiction.
After getting out of rehab, Ray Charles stayed clean for the remainder of his life. As one of the greatest American entertainers of all time, his songs, image and career were always going to survive the test of time. However, thanks to the film Ray, he will also be remembered for a success that readers of this site know is just as challenging and monumental- winning a brave battle with a deadly drug addiction to heroin.
If nothing else, the movie “Ray” teaches us that recovery from addiction is possible though it may not be easy and may not look pretty from the outside. Regardless of the depths of the “bottom” addicts dig themselves into, it’s possible to make the climb back to a healthy, full, life. Though celebrities often find recovery from drug addiction difficult due to the stresses of their job, the relatively low expectations of success, and the fact that they’re surrounded by “yes (wo)men” who sometimes act in ways that sabotage success in recovery, it’s still possible to quit drugs even under those conditions. Remember that recovery is possible, and with the right tools and program, even likely.