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Ray Charles - 50 Years In Music Print E-mail
Tuesday, 08 November 2005

Ray Charles: 50 Years In Music

Image Entertainment
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, The Brand New Heavies, Michael Bolton, Randy Travis, James Ingram, Michael McDonald, Tevin Campbell, Gladys Knight
TV broadcast year: 1991
DVD release year: 2005
film rating: Three Stars
sound/picture: Three Stars
reviewed by: Dan Macintosh

Televised musical tributes can be a little problematic, and this show -- which was originally broadcast back in 1991 -- is no exception to that rule. TV execs must find a workable balance between presenting a lineup that does the artist proper justice and creating a broadcast that brings in high ratings. If too many older artists appear on screen -- especially when the show revolves around a musical legend like Ray Charles – most young people won't give it a second glance. On the other hand, if the program parades a bunch of unseasoned young musicians unqualified to comment on the honoree, the point of the event may be missed entirely. In this particular case, Ray Charles’ plenteous screen time covers a multitude of sins – such as the few participants that really shouldn’t have been there. Charles is at the top of his game here, which makes everything worthwhile.

The most glaring problem with this program is its inclusions of Tevin Campbell and Brand New Heavies. The Brand New Heavies, which perform "Never Stop," weren’t a big name 15 years ago, nor have they exactly burned up the charts since then. Tevin Campbell, on the other hand, participated primarily because he was also signed to Quincy Jones' label at the time. Charles and Jones, by the way, go way back together. Campbell hasn't released an album since 1999, and he sure looks and sounds dated when singing "Just Ask Me" here. His new jack swing may have been the next big thing back then, but his smooth moves and colorfully-dressed dancers just look out of place to modern eyes. After singing his song, Campbell is even asked to introduce a Charles performance here, but this young man appears to be so shy and nervous, you wonder if he’ll make it all the way through his introduction. These two younger artists probably participated because a few music business executives recognized a great opportunity to grant them a little high-profile air time.

In a non-musical instance, George Lopez does a few minutes of comedy at the beginning of this show. Strangely, though, his bits have nothing at all to do with Charles or his music. It's almost as if he's acting like one of those comics who hat warm up crowds before sitcom tapings. If he had something -- anything -- to say about the honoree, it would have been welcome. But he appears to be just collecting a paycheck here.

The best musical moment of the night by far occurs when Stevie Wonder joins Charles on stage to duet on Wonder’s "Living For The City." Obviously, Wonder shares more in common with Charles than just blindness. In fact, Wonder's earliest Motown recordings represented an obvious homage to Brother Ray. Wonder eventually developed his own unique style, but he clearly owes much of his original inspiration to Charles. This Wonder and Charles performance is truly magical. It's already one of Wonder's best songs, but the addition of Charles’ voice takes it to a whole higher level. There's a moment here when Charles improvises a segment that finds him complaining about rat-infested ghetto dwellings, which is simply chilling. It’s a rare thing to hear a great recording like this one done even better live.

Most of the evening’s other duets don't work quite so well, however. There's some fun interplay between Charles and Willie Nelson on “Busted,” which is memorable. But having Michael Bolton add his annoyingly gut-busting vocals to "Georgia On My Mind" nearly ruins that one. Gladys Knight stands and sings "I Wish I'd Never Loved You at All" next to the piano-playing Charles, without Mr. Charles singing a single vocal note. Excluding Charles from this performance is senseless, because it would have been fun to hear how these two raspy voices sounded together. There is also a show-closing performance of "America the Beautiful," which features a full-cast "We Are The World"-style performance, on a standard that Charles has made his own. Television loves group songs like these, but just Charles’ voice and his piano would have been more than enough.

Fortunately for the viewer, Charles also gets plenty of opportunities to sing his own material by himself. These moments include the singing of "What'd I Say," "Just A Thrill" and "Can't Keep A Good Man Down." Whether he's backed by his Raylettes, a big band, or just his lone keyboard, this man always sounds terrific here. This program marked his fiftieth year in show business, but he still looked and sounded mighty strong even in his latter years. Health permitting, he could have easily gone for another 20 years without losing a single step.

In between musical performances, there are also a few videotaped segments where artists pay tribute to the man. The best of these is one from Paul McCartney, who explains how "What'd I Say" had an influential impact upon him. For the most part, though, folks like Bill Cosby and others don't have anything all that significant to say about Charles. There's also a section where Gloria Estefan leads a stadium audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to Charles. It's doubtful, by the way, that Estefan could fill these same large stadiums today. Wow, how fortunes can change in such a short span of time!

This show also drops in interview sections, which spotlight various celebrity participants. All of these friends and colleagues obviously love Ray, yet few have anything insightful to say about the man. For instance, why couldn't Willie Nelson have recalled something they'd experienced together? They'd both recorded together in the past, so there must have been at least few memorable moments worth sharing with the audience. Quincy Jones knew Charles since they were both struggling musicians, and could have easily shed a little light on Ray's career. The only thing he has to say about Charles, however, is that he -- like all great artists -- pays close attention to the details of his work. This is not a fun, funny or touching anecdote in the least. Certainly, these performers are in awe of Charles, but you’re left with the uneasy feeling they’re talking about a total stranger, rather than a friend.

Maybe one of those Comedy Central celebrity roasts might have worked out better than this. Sure, such roasts are mainly nothing more than forums for comedians to try out their material in front of a roomful of other comedians. But at least there would have been a few personal remarks and some funny jokes thrown into the mix. If nothing else, there might have been some joy coming across the screen. Charles' music is wonderful, mainly because it's so nakedly emotional. Sadly, this sterile tribute does not mirror the music it honors.

The sound here is good, at least for a TV program. Ray Charles' raw emotion is what always tickles the ears, so it doesn't take a whole lot of production value to make his music sound good. Nevertheless, this is a fine way to hear many great Charles songs.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
aspect ratio(s):
1.33:1 (full screen)
special features: None
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
monitor: 43” Sony KP-43HT20

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