Before you get all excited about seeing Ray Charles in his prime, rocking the paint off the walls in "Ballad in Blue," take note of just how odd this forgotten 1964 film is: Charles, who gets top billing, is essentially a supporting character in his own movie; the rest revolves around a well-to-do English family and their blind son. Behind the camera is Paul Henreid, the "Casablanca" star who spent most of the 1950s and 60s directing television projects and the occasional motion picture. As such, it's a very dry, very white British drama with Ray Charles airlifted in.
Henreid's greatest accomplishment here isn't the drama, but the way he stages Charles' numerous performances. (The singer plays himself; the story finds him in the middle of a European tour.) The filmmaker gets very minimal - Charles and/or his band popping out of an empty, black frame - which allows the songs to wow us on their own. Later in the film, he mucks things up with melodramatic tricks such as superimposing images of the blind son, but even then, there's a raw simplicity about the songs, Henreid fully aware that Charles and his band (including the Raelettes!) can handle things just fine on their own.
(For those keeping score, the featured songs include "Let the Good Times Roll," "I Got a Woman," "Unchain My Heart," "Busted," and many more. The movie's a goldmine of vintage Genius.)
Strip away the performances, though, and what a strange little movie you get. The film opens with Charles leading a classroom of high-pitched junior Brits in a "Hit the Road Jack" sing-along. He's visiting a school for the blind, and it's there he meets David (Piers Bishop), a precocious but moody kid who's still learning how to cope with his recent vision loss. His mother, Peggy (Mary Peach), has become overly protective to a fault, while her struggling-artist boyfriend Steve (Tom Bell) suggests she should ease off.
So far, decent enough. As an actor, Bishop is wooden and clumsy, and Charles isn't asked to do much in the way of range, but the two manage to squeeze out some likable scenes together, like the bit where the musician gives the kid his Braille wristwatch and teaches him how to use it. There's a delicateness to this stuff that carries us through even when the story takes some wrong left turns - most notably a sequence where David sneaks out in the middle of the night to find Charles at a nightclub.
There's also an iffy plot point that leads the boy to a French hospital that just might be able to restore his sight. Its mawkishness is carefully guided by Henreid (who co-wrote with Burton Wohl), who keeps the sentimentality in check and who leaves us on an ambiguous note. For all its melodrama, the finale does fit well with the direction of the plot. We can't help but quietly root for the boy.
But what of the parents? Peggy's overbearing personality gets diminished as the screenplay gradually focuses instead on Steve's professional life. He's a musician, you see, barely making ends meet by pounding out jazz at night - until Charles offers him a job writing musical arrangements for the band. From this, the movie leaves its main star behind for a major chunk of the second act, following Steve as he gives up the bottle and winds his way through an affair with a fashion designer (Dawn Addams) - an affair the script eventually forgets as it strains to get Charles back in the spotlight.
Race issues are impossible to overlook - aside from the band, the entire cast (even the concert audience) is lily white - but the movie honorably attempts to dismiss them. Aside from some throwaway dialogue about "negro singers," the script pushes to keep race away from the heart of the story. Does it overcompensate? It's hard to tell, since Charles is portrayed with such reverence, although we must admit that the movie, which is essentially one long commercial for the musician, would've never painted him any other way.
Long unavailable, "Ballad in Blue" finally arrives on DVD as part of Lionsgate's Music Makers series.
Video & Audio
The 1.33:1 transfer reveals some expected grain and scratches, while black levels are for the most part quite deep and rich.
The Dolby mono soundtrack does what it can with the musical performances, and everything sounds decent and hiss-free, if nothing above average. No subtitles are included.
On the DVD itself, the lone extras are a couple trailers for other titles in the Music Makers line.
Packaged with the disc, though, is a CD of five oldies: two from Bobby Darin, one each from Ray Charles, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Omara Portuondo.
Diehard Charles fans might get a kick out of owning this cinematic novelty, but the rest of you will do fine to Rent It.