December 2nd, 2011
Label: Eagle Rock Ent.
Format: DVD, NTSC (111 min.)
Release Date: October 24, 2011
Ray Charles: Live in France 1961, the newly discovered film of Ray and his ten-piece band rocking and socking a delirious French audience at Antibes, France, in July 1961, is a masterpiece, a must-have DVD treasure for any dedicated fan of the Genius. Film of Ray in performance before the mid-60s is rare, and this footage of Ray and the gang making their international debut gives us a superb document of what Ray looked and sounded like at the height of his powers—he was then only 31!
The richness of the DVD lies, of course, in the hundred-plus minutes of music, including a goodly number of Ray’s all-time biggest hits: “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “What’d I Say,” and “Georgia on My Mind.” Ray is in fine voice, and the nine-piece band, featuring long-time Ray stalwarts, Fathead Newman, Leroy Cooper, Hank Crawford, and Wallace Davenport, is red hot, both when playing muted backgrounds for the vocals or when playing all out through orgasmic codas. The DVD fills a long-empty hole in the history of Ray’s musical development: now we know how he sounded in the early ‘60s when he was growing out of his little seven-piece band and into the big band to come.
Yet sight is as important as sound on this Antibes DVD. The stage lighting is perfect, and the black-and-white images have an old-fashioned simplicity. The finished film blends the footage of at least four cameras, so we get to see Ray and the band from numerous angles, wide shots and close ups, but—and this is important—we stay with each point of view for a minute or more at a time. So, instead of confusing cuts leaping from player to player, we stay, for instance, with Fathead through a whole solo, with Leroy as he poots away on his baritone sax, and with Ray through dazzling chorus after chorus of the driving piano blues. This slow cutting gives the film a documentary quality: we can see, plain as day, just how Ray’s band worked, how the music got made. Funny detail: no one prepared music stands for the band, and they strain to read charts lying tangled on chairs before them.
Following is the official trailer:
Throughout, Ray appears totally focused on the music. He’s never, chatting, smiling, or hamming for the crowd. Instead he’s listening, listening, listening, making sure the music is played just the way he wants it played. And on these glorious days in July, the music came out just fine. Ray was such a hit at Antibes that a few months later he and big band came to Paris; those back-to-back gigs kicked off Ray’s three-decade international career.
Ray Charles: Live in France 1961, the DVD: get one today. You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Michael Lydon (author of Ray Charles: Man and Music)