Saturday, 5 December 2015
Ballad In Blue (1964)
The first time I saw this curio was way back in the early '90s on a rainy afternoon during a family holiday in a caravan park in Fleetwood or Rhyl (if it was a caravan, it was always those two destinations) Being a poor day weather wise, I had glanced through the paper to see what was on TV that afternoon and was intrigued to read about this film featuring legendary blind musician Ray Charles, playing himself, helping to transform the lives of a blind boy, his widowed mother and her composer boyfriend played by Tom Bell. To add to the curiosity value, the film was directed by Casablanca star Paul Henreid. After that I was compelled to watch it, even though - and I must have been a really cynical child - I found it quite a hubristic vehicle for Charles!
Ballad In Blue has recently been released in the Network British Film range which is currently having a Christmas sale on all items. As a result, I snapped it up for just over £4 and watched it again for the first time since that rainy afternoon in the '90s today, on another rainy afternoon yesterday. It's a poignant and somewhat uplifting film drama set in mid-1960s London which intersperses its main plot with the opportunity to see Charles performing some of his great hits, including Unchain My Heart, I Got a Woman, Hit the Road, Jack (accompanied by the most RP sounding children from the blind institute) and Busted. As an actor, Charles is no great shakes but he's competent enough to play himself and his performance doesn't detract from the material. Less convincing is the child actor Piers Bishop, a former child model for knitwear and campaigns for Wall's and Savlon, but to be fair it's a demanding role for any child. Better are Mary Peach as his over protective mother and Tom Bell as her boyfriend Steve.
My Dad always rated Bell as an actor, he was a bit of a favourite of his and so I recall us both being rather happy to sit through this film back in the '90s. Dad always liked actors who never seem to try too hard, who seem effortlessly magnetic and who had an almost insubordinate take it or leave it acting style, and Bell certainly had that. As I've grown older I've come to appreciate him too. His character, whilst clearly a great and caring 'stepfather' for the young blind boy encouraging him to independence and to enjoy life, also possesses a darker streak which sees him turn to the bottle at various stages in the film. Unfortunately, Henreid's script (co-written with Bernie Wohl) wimps out on the alcoholic subplot as well as the one which features Dawn Addams' character's attempt to lure Bell into an affair with her. You're left wondering what the point of it all was given that there are no conclusions to these set-ups. Even the central story - Charles persuading Peach to allow her son to have surgery that could potentially see him regain his sight - closes without a definitive answer as to whether the operation was a success or not.
If you like Ray Charles or the somewhat downbeat '60s cinematic milieu then I'd recommend this to you. It's an enjoyable enough film that, at just 85 minutes, doesn't outstay its welcome. It's not a great film though, it's just one that is quite right for a rainy afternoon.