The Ramones and Ray Charles had little in common but isolation, a need for control, and musical genius
Ray Charles and the Ramones are both inductees into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame who radically altered the direction of American music, but they don't have much else in common.
Charles was a musical virtuoso with an effortless command of blues, jazz, country, gospel, and pop, an artist capable of writing complex charts for an orchestra or big-band horn section. The Ramones were glorious primitives who turned their severe limitations into assets by excising anything that didn't fit into their loud, fast, and direct approach.
But two new films - the sprawling, ambitious biopic Ray and the gritty documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones - manage to find a link between these deeply divergent artists. Their stories are essentially about control, about the obsessive need of desperate misfits to create and shape a world of their own, and about the human toll that comes from these compulsions.
Ray director Taylor Hackford built his reputation on tepid romantic fare such as An Officer and a Gentleman and Against All Odds, even managing to make mashed potatoes out of Frank Deford's intriguing football novel, Everybody's All-American.
Some musical biopics (the Hackford-produced La Bamba comes to mind) deal with lives so short or lacking in drama that they strain to find an emotional center. Ray offers no such challenges. The story of a young Charles gradually losing his sight shortly after witnessing his brother's drowning in a wash tub becomes the recurring image that haunts this movie. Charles' remarkable mother, Aretha (Sharon Warren), uses tough love to instill in her son a sense of independence, telling him: "Never let nobody turn you into no cripple."
Ray doesn't shy away from the dark side of Charles' relentless drive for control. He demonstrates little loyalty for music and business associates, dropping people when they're no longer useful to him. He keeps his wife and children at arm's length, coldly using and discarding girlfriends along the way. For all his musical impact, Charles has remained a somewhat enigmatic figure over the years, but this film gets beneath the shades and the oft-parodied mannerisms to argue that the source of Charles' greatness - his refusal to become overly dependent on anyone - also hindered his emotional growth.
Ultimately, the film rests on Jamie Foxx's performance in the title role. In a tour de force that no one could have anticipated, Foxx captures Charles' complex, contradictory nature: his sneaky charm, his musical curiosity, his stubborn drive, and his affable distance. The only musical biopic performance readily comparable to it is Sissy Spacek's in Coal Miner's Daughter. Both Spacek and Foxx used physical mimickry as a means of arriving at emotional nuance. It may not be a coincidence that both actors had the opportunity to spend time studying their subjects up close.
In a way, this story is a depressing one. The band never rose to the commercial heights it deserved, and Joey and Johnny, the two members who hung on from beginning to end, hardly spoke a word to each other over the band's last 15 years on the road. Little wonder that Dee Dee, the band's late bassist, recalls the experience as "an ugly life."
Nonetheless, even when the Ramones sang about death, lobotomies, or the KKK taking their baby away, the results always felt exhilarating. The same thing happens with End of the Century. Even the sad knowledge that three Ramones have died in the last four years can't overwhelm the sense that this no-future band came out of Queens, New York with three chords, matching bowl haircuts, ripped jeans, and black-leather jackets, and made history.
Near the end of the film, Johnny - the hard-nosed right-winger who ran the group with martial discipline - contemplates Joey's 2001 cancer death. The two men never liked each other, and their mutual antipathy was sealed when Johnny stole Joey's girlfriend in the early '80s. Yet, Johnny grudgingly admits to feeling depressed over Joey's death, an emotion he dryly attributes to a "kind of weakness." It's as close as this proudly unsentimental man ever came to relinquishing control, but for Ramones fans, it's enough. •