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A throwback to an earlier era, 1964's Ballad in Blue is an undemanding musical vehicle for Ray Charles, The Genius of Soul. Traditional movie stories built around a popular musical celebrity would typically show a star using his off-stage hours to aid young lovers, find a family for an orphan or encourage a budding talent. With a professional cast providing dramatic support, non-acting star Charles is free to concentrate on presenting a pleasant image for fans that may only have heard him on the radio.
Ballad in Blue showcases a remarkable talent well worth putting on film; the musical performances stand out from the predictable storyline. Ray Charles (playing himself) performs for sightless children in a London school, and meets young David Harrison (Piers Bishop), a ten-year-old recently blinded by sickness. Charles takes a personal interest in David when he realizes that his mother Peggy (Mary Peach of A Gathering of Eagles and The Projected Man) is over-protecting her son. As only happens in musicals, Peggy's lover Steve Collins (Tom Bell of The L-Shaped Room) is a pianist and composer, and Ray Charles hires him to arrange music for a European tour. Yet Peggy seems to have little confidence in Steve's career. Ray knows of a Parisian eye surgeon who may be able to restore David's sight but Peggy balks at taking her son out of his routine. Complicating things is the seductive fashion designer Gina Graham (Dawn Addams), a playgirl with romantic designs on Steve.
The script by Burton Wohl, the writer of the perceptive drama A Cold Wind in August, presents a series of generic situations that defeat the best efforts of director Paul Henreid. The ex-actor also came up with the film's original story. Ray Charles is sincere but limited in his acting range, and the movie scrupulously avoids placing him in dramatic situations. We are instead shown a number of complications among "Ray's" new friends in London. Young Piers Bishop doesn't generate much charisma as the blind boy. A neighbor girl sneaks him out on a potentially interesting midnight bus trip to see Ray Charles perform, a scene sorely lacking in spontaneity. This becomes more evident when the children's bus passes a giant marquee in Piccadilly Circus for Richard Lester's fancy-free A Hard Day's Night; English cinema was just entering an exciting new phase. Part of the film's constricted feeling may come from the complicated production plan laid out by young moguls-to-be Alexander and Michael Salkind. Exteriors were filmed in London and Paris but the credits tell us that interior work was done at the Ardmore Studios in Ireland.
The dramatic turns are almost entirely inconsequential. We find it hard to believe that Peggy, a caring mother, wouldn't jump at the possibility of seeing her son's sight restored. Steve's insecurity and heavy drinking vanish as he gains confidence working for Charles, and Peggy never finds out about Steve's dalliance with Gina. Steve is given an opportunity to write an original song for his employer, a success that's a foregone conclusion. Ray dispenses advice from the sidelines of his own movie while behaving with quiet magnanimity. When he accompanies David on some carnival rides nobody seems to be having very much fun.
The presentation is unduly cautious with the subject of blindness, although the spirited Ray Charles often demonstrated a sharp sense of humor on this issue. Here he seems unusually subdued, and seems to have no personal life of his own. Ray has a friendly black manager (Joe Adams) whose main function seems to be to guide his employer through unfamiliar rooms. The fact that race issues are not present is no drawback given the performer's almost universal popularity, especially in France where American jazz and soul greats were lauded as geniuses. The film seems far too careful not to harm Charles's public image.
But Ballad in Blue compensates in the music department -- an impressive number is never more than a few minutes away. Ray Charles performs behind the titles, sings for small children and socks over several hits on the stage, with and without his backup singers The Raelettes: "Unchain My Heart", "I Got a Woman" and "Hit the Road, Jack". The audio for the rousing stage performances is clearly recorded live, a definite plus. Fans eager to see Ray Charles in action at this fairly early stage of his career will not be disappointed.
Lionsgate's DVD of Ballad in Blue is a fine transfer of this perfectly preserved B&W movie, with strong mono audio for the many musical scenes. The original aspect ratio appears to be at least as wide as 1.66:1, but the image is presented full frame at 1:33. Another release in the Music Makers line, the Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle A Man Called Adam, has been properly formatted and enhanced for widescreen.
Included in the Music Makers package is the same CD from the Sammy Davis Jr. release, with performances by Davis, Ray Charles, Bobby Darin and Omara Portuondo. The packaging text billboards Ballad in Blue as Charles's debut acting performance. "The Genius of Soul" appeared in at more than 120 movies and television shows in his long career.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ballad in Blue rates:
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