Ray Charles, Movie Star: The Strange Tale Of Ballad In Blue

A stiff-lipped melodrama in which the famed musician becomes chummy with a small boy – it was a more innocent time in 1965.

I must confess that until I saw this film, I was blissfully unaware that Ray Charles had had his moment as a film star at all, let alone in a 1960s British melodrama, so Ballad in Blue – or Blues for Lovers if you saw it in America – certainly gets full marks for unexpectedness and novelty. While you might expect Beat groups and other teen idols of the era to get their own movies during the Sixties (as many of them did, of course, with decidedly mixed results), the idea of the already-past-the-first-flush-of-youth blind bluesman fronting a film is rather novel, to say the least.

Perhaps cutting back on the acting requirements – and in the great tradition of the 1960s pop group movie – Charles plays himself, on a tour of the UK and taking time out to visit a school for blind children where he leads the kids in a rousing version of Hit The Road Jack. Is this what the kids were listening to in 1965 to the point of all of them knowing the words? Well, let’s let that pass. The frightful Englishness of it all is revealed the moment Charles stops playing and is heartily congratulated by the poshest person you’ve ever heard, setting the scene for a film where cut-glass accents and stiff performances dominate proceedings. Given the state of yoof cinema today, it’s actually quite a relief to see a film ostensibly aimed at ‘the kids’ that is unremittingly posh, the accents on show being as unlikely to be heard now as working-class voices were then.

Leaving the school, Charles and his assistant bump into young widow Peggy (Mary Peach) and her son David (Piers Bishop) and offer them a lift. David lost his sight six months earlier, and presumably whatever acting ability he had went along with it, as his lines are delivered with all the verve and passion of someone reading them from a book. Still, he seems to bond with Charles, who gives him a braille watch that will become an oddly important plot point (and would probably be an arrestable offence these days of celebrity grooming, but again – let’s leave that aside). His mother is overly protective and, quite frankly, a sour-faced stick in the mud who refuses to allow her son to develop as a blind person, officially clinging to the hope of a cure but, in reality, wanting to keep the boy dependent on her. Yers, it’s that classic ‘parents refuse to accept disability’ story given a Ray Charles-shaped twist. Interestingly – and perhaps all too realistically – her protectiveness doesn’t stop her from going out on the town with her new boyfriend and musician Steve (Tom Bell), leaving David with a neighbour and her daughter, who is a bit of a bad seed, quite honestly. When the brat refuses to believe that David and Charles are best buds – which does seem a bit of an exaggeration to be fair, though quite why anyone would choose Ray Charles as their imaginary friend is a question that the film has no intention of answering – the pair sneak out to wander the streets on London looking for Ray. When they finally make their way to the nightclub (young kids wandering the midnight streets of London clearly being a common sight at the time), Charles takes them back home. Meanwhile, Steve is worried about the fact that Ray has offered him a job, drowning his sorrows at a party full of unglamorous gold diggers and rich arseholes as he frets about whether to sell out his jazz principles to work with ‘pop star’ Charles. Yes, I know. Just go with it.

Anyway, he takes the job and is soon in Paris, though Peggy won’t join him, citing the disruption to David’s life. But eventually, she is talked into it and the odd little family unit takes a trip, where David gets to experience a bit of life. But things go wrong when the boy and his mother are caught in an unlikely and unconvincingly raucous crowd outside the theatre (to see their reactions, you’d think it was the Paris Riots or something). Obviously, Peggy wants to go home, but there’s another issue – Paris is where they’ll find a doctor who can possibly cure David’s blindness. Peggy’s determination to flee – and not ‘cure’ David leads to an emotional confrontation with Ray…

This episodic soap unfortunately crawls along much of the time, going from event to event without any real sense of drama ever materialising. The film seems a little uncertain as to what it wants to be – the emphasis on David and his plight has the feel of a kid’s film, but then it cuts to Steve getting sloshed with his morally loose rich friends. But the actual narrative is so predictable, so preachy and yet so ridiculous that you are never quite drawn into it, instead simply watching the narrative unfolding as a series of flat events with unappealing characters going through the motions. In fact, it feels like an elongated educational film most of the time, making its points with the subtlety of a slap in the face but without any real sense of drama. What it really needs is more melodrama, more overwrought hysterics. It needs, basically, to be a Sam Fuller movie.

But it’s the performances are a major problem in this film. When the inexperienced Charles is the best actor in the movie, you know you’re in trouble. Okay, Ray is playing himself, but still. Bishop, you can perhaps forgive as he’s just a kid, but Peach as his mother is just awful. Everyone seems so damned awkward, a situation not helped by the ham-fisted dialogue, dreadful characters and rather strange setups (one cringe-worthy scene has Charles and his entourage sitting very awkwardly in a nightclub, looking as if they are waiting for someone to tell them what to do – which is probably exactly what was happening). The plot, if you haven’t already worked that out, is a ridiculous, juvenile melodrama full of holes.

So you might think that the film has nothing going for it. But of course, that would be to discount the live music, which is of course fantastic. Great songs, great performances and looking fantastic in crisp black and white, they are the salvation of the movie. There just aren’t enough of them, and one show is rather hampered by three songs being curtailed into a medley. But what is here is great, and the film is worth seeing for them alone.

As an oddity, Ballad in Blue is worth a look for fans of obscure British programmers and Ray Charles. Everyone else might find it a little too lacking in substance to really work, though it’s a rather eccentric and unusual affair that, for all its faults, is definitely worth a look, even if it is just to marvel at the lost world of 1965 cool as seen through the eyes of very uncool people.


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