Lionsgate // 1964 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 25th, 2010
The genius of soul in his debut acting performance.
"Tell me what I say now, tell me what I say!"
It's the swinging '60s, and the great Ray Charles (playing himself) is on tour in London. One day, Ray takes a little time to visit a school for the blind and play a few songs for them. While there, he meets a woman named Peggy Harrison (Mary Peach, A Gathering of Eagles) and her young son David (Piers Bishop, Tomorrow at Ten). Before long, Ray finds himself heavily involved in the lives of Peggy, David, and Peggy's struggling composer boyfriend Steve (Tom Bell, Prospero's Books). It seems that a little bit of Ray goes a long way towards making a big difference.
Ballad in Blue is a strange curiosity of a film, understandably forgotten but ready for re-discovery thanks to this new DVD release. A star vehicle built around the charm and talents of Ray Charles, the film is by turns a musical, a sweet-natured inspirational story, and an over-the-top melodrama. It's a rather ungainly combination of elements, to be sure. The movie doesn't really work, but it's certainly an interesting watch. Plus, it's a great opportunity for Charles fans to catch the singer playing himself to appealing effect.
For me (and I suspect for most viewers), the highlight of the film is unquestionably the musical numbers. Ray Charles was in his prime in 1964, and he's in absolutely magnificent form throughout. A generous handful of Charles songs are presented throughout the film, including "I Got a Woman," "That Lucky Old Sun," "Unchain My Heart," and many others. One particularly touching highlight is Charles doing a call-and-response version of "Hit the Road, Jack," with the group of blind kids at the school. The mid-section of the film perhaps goes too long without a Charles number, but the first and third acts are loaded with great tunes.
The dramatic elements are considerably less successful, given that the writing is pretty pedestrian and the acting is mostly little more than serviceable. Charles isn't exactly an incredible actor, but he comes across well in this film given the somewhat underwhelming performances of his co-stars. The inspirational aspects are easy to forgive; they're so fundamentally good-hearted that one can't really dislike them (who can resist that moment in which Charles teaches a little blind kid how to use a Braille watch?). The more sensationalistic elements of melodrama are less effective; particularly the subplot regarding Steve's affair with another woman. It somehow seems too dirty for a movie this gentle.
It must be said that the film does contain some eyebrow-raising elements of peculiarity, chief among them the subplot surrounding Tom Bell's character. His character is a composer who spends his nights playing jazz in a small nightclub. He finds it to be somewhat thankless work, and it certainly doesn't pay very well. He's hoping for some sort of big break. Okay. Then Ray Charles comes along, hears one of Steve's songs and essentially says, "Steve, you're brilliant. Come be my arranger and write some songs for me. I'll pay you a ton of money." The very definition of a big break, huh? Okay, but here's the strange part...Steve has a hard time attempting to figure out whether he wants the job. Part of him wants to take it for the money, but he resents the offer because he finds it demeaning. His friends make fun of him for accepting the position, and jeer when Steve suggests that Ray is an, "artist." Is it a race thing? I think so, but the issue is rarely touched on directly by the movie. Steve only speaks in vague terms about why he doesn't really want the job. There's a moment when a reporter asks Steve, "What's it like to be a white man arranging for a Negro singer?," but Steve deflects the question and never gets around to answering it. As a result, the whole subplot just plays very strangely.
The film is certainly a product of it's time when it comes to the issue of race. The issue is never brought up by the movie, but it's hard to ignore the fact that there are no African-American people present outside of Ray's band members and associates. There are no black children in the school for the blind and no black audience members at any of Ray's concerts. In addition, there's an unusual scene that plays much differently today than it might have back then. Young David and his friend Margaret (both of whom are under the age of 10) have both snuck out of the house and traveled by bus all the way to the nightclub where Ray Charles is sharing a drink with Peggy and Steve. Now, by some coincidence, Ray and his manager Fred (Joe Adams, The Manchurian Candidate) spot the kids outside the club. "We should tell their parents," the manager says. "Aww, we don't need to do that," Ray says. "Let's just take them back home." So they put the kids in the car, sneak into the Harrison household and creep around the house attempting to get the kids to their room without Peggy finding out. It's meant to play as cute and funny, but that sort of behavior comes across as very irresponsible in the modern era.
Video is solid enough given the age of the film, though there are some scratches and flecks present throughout. There's also a bit of flickering during a few scenes that's a little distracting. Audio is more problematic, as it has a tendency both to drop out on a regular basis and to sound rather distorted at times. The quality of the musical numbers is lacking, which hurts the performances a good bit (the tracks in the film sound far less impressive than CDs featuring Charles performances from that era). There are no extras on the disc, but you do get a bonus audio CD featuring tracks from Charles, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Omara Portuondo. This same CD is included with all of the new releases in the "Music Makers" DVD series.
Charles fans will definitely want to give this one a look, but there are too many problems to recommend the movie to the average viewer. I don't regret watching it, but I doubt I'll want to revisit it again.
Some great songs, but it's still guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated