Ray Charles America (2010)
Ray Charles America is a 90-minute documentary, directed by Alexis Manya Spraic, “examining the social and political context of Ray Charles’ work, and how he changed the cultural landscape”. It contains rare and never-before released music and footage (the recording of It Hurts To Be In Love; the performance of Ring Of Fire on The Johnny Cash Show; a tour of Ray’s private recording studio in LA, “and an interview at his studio just years before his death”). Featured interviewees are Quincy Jones, Mable John, Susaye Greene, Bill Cosby, Clint Eastwood, BB King, Tom Waits, and Fran Drescher.
The official World Premiere was at the Woodstock Film Festival, on 3 October 2010 in the Bearsville Theater; the first broadcast was on 20 October 2010 on the BIO Channel. The trailer can be watched here.
The quality of the documentary is disappointing. The story line has nothing new or surprising, the interviewees have nothing memorable to add to it (WTF are Waits and Drescher doing here?!), and the video and picture research hasn’t lead to anything really new.
My conjecture is that this production is largely based on a shelved project from 1999; it was probably revived after Joe Adams stepped back from the daily management of the Ray Charles Foundation*.
Michael Lydon in his extended Ray Charles biography (Ray Charles: Man And Music, Updated Commemorative Edition; Routledge, 2004) revealed that in early 1999 cable network Arts and Entertainment had decided to produce a biography on Ray Charles, to be edited by Morgan Neville. Several interviews were filmed at RPM, and Neville found “rare photos and footage”, and traveled to Greenfield and St. Augustine for fresh footage on Ray’s childhood. But when Joe Adams returned from hospital after a heart surgery, he shut down everything he hadn’t improved. A & E shelved the film, “although a final cut was edited for a legally allowed onetime broadcast as Ray’s obituary.”
The ingredients are about the same, BIO Channel is an A & E company, and the new documentary was produced by… Morgan Neville.
* Adams is currently back on the board (Aug. 2014).