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Alumni Profile

Curt Sobel '78: A Tribute to an American Icon

  Curt Sobel
  (Left to right): Curt Sobel, Ray Charles, and Taylor Hackford who worked on the film Ray before Charles's passing.

Curt Sobel can't hide his enthusiasm as the October 29 release of the feature film Ray nears. Sobel served as the music supervisor and editor on the Taylor Hackford film (starring Jamie Foxx,) that chronicles the life of The Genius of Soul, the late Ray Charles. While this was film number 51 in Sobel's distinguished music editing career and his first as music supervisor, it occupies a special place in his heart apart from the others.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime treat to have met and worked with Ray Charles, who was such a remarkable man," says Sobel. "We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to record the material that we needed him to sing and play for the film before he passed away. By the time we were shooting and mixing, he was getting sick. It is sad that he won't get to experience the finished product."

The film portrays Charles during his childhood in Albany, Georgia, depicting the onset of his blindness at age seven and the numerous challenges he overcame on the road to become one of the most beloved icons and innovators in American popular music. Sobel reveals that the film project took years to materialize and inspired those who worked on it.

"Producer Stuart Benjamin has been trying to get this film made for years," says Sobel. "And Taylor Hackford talked to me years ago about directing a film on the life of Ray Charles." Finally, in May 2002, Sobel started the work of preparing music budget projections and working with Hackford on which versions of Ray's songs detailed in the script should be shot and how to shoot them.

Sobel was involved in all musical decisions and supervised each musical element in the film from preproduction to postproduction. He supervised sessions for the prerecorded music with Charles to make sure the production had what it needed for shooting, made sure that all scenes with musicians playing and singing looked authentic, worked with the film's composer Craig Armstrong from the spotting sessions to the final dubbing sessions, and much more. Sobel even appeared on camera conducting the orchestra in the scene where Foxx as Ray Charles performs "Georgia On My Mind."

One highlight for Sobel was shooting meetings between Charles and Foxx and the prerecord sessions. "Ray and Jamie met for the first time in the fall of 2002," says Sobel. "We wanted Ray to feel that he would be well represented by Jamie, who is a classically-trained pianist and a great choice to play Ray. I videotaped their meetings so that Jamie could later study Ray's mannerisms and movements. The prerecord sessions with Ray and the musicians were also shot and I leaned over Ray's shoulder to get his hands on the keys so Jamie would have a visual and audio guide to practice with. Ray recorded new versions of his older songs 'Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand' and 'Straighten Up and Fly Right.' We also needed piano/vocal versions of 'You Don't Know Me,' 'I Got a Woman,' and 'Hit the Road Jack' because these songs were not available to us in this form."

Sobel is a veteran music editor who grew up in Detroit and came to Hollywood in the fall 1978 after earning his Berklee diploma in composition and arranging. In Boston, Sobel had worked with Don Wilkins in the Film Scoring Department and had scored some short film projects before leaving Boston for Los Angeles. A chance meeting with music editor Dan Carlin, Jr. in Hollywood and then Dan Carlin, Sr. who operated the premier music-editing company Segue Music, led to Sobel's first break.

"I hit it off with Dan Carlin Sr.," Sobel recalls, "but when he saw that my résumé was filled with writing credits, he was reticent to hire and train me because he thought I would use the editing experience as a stepping stone to becoming a film composer. I told him that music editing seemed like an exciting field that would have me working alongside great composers and musicians. I convinced him and myself that this was the road I wanted to take."

After three weeks of training, Sobel found himself in a darkened screening room spotting music for the film Wise Blood with composer Alex North and director John Huston. Ultimately, North and Sobel became good friends and worked on other films. Composers North and John Addison later sponsored Sobel to become a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and his music-editing career gained momentum.

Next, Sobel started working on a TV series and movie-of-the-week projects with composer Fred Karlin. In 1981, Sobel earned one of his first screen credits as music editor on a feature film called Cutter's Way with composer Jack Nitzsche. "After Cutter's Way, Jack and I worked on six or seven other films, including Officer and a Gentleman, Cannery Row, and Personal Best," says Sobel. "Through Jack, I met other producers and directors, including Taylor Hackford, with whom I have worked now for a 23-year period." Sobel has collaborated on all but two films that Hackford has directed, including Officer and a Gentleman, which won two Oscars in 1982. Sobel is hopeful that Ray, Hackford's latest, will finally net an Oscar for the director.

"Ray was years in the planning," says Sobel. "It was truly a labor of love for so many people. Taylor's execution of Ray's story is nothing short of brilliant. I've felt blessed to be involved in this project. Getting to do something like this film makes all of the hardwork worthwhile. I'm really excited about people seeing it."