Over her long and storied career, singer Ella Fitzgerald was given many titles, including the “First Lady of Song,” “First Lady of Scat,” and the list goes on. But what she did better than most was interpret and breathe new life into even the most forgettable standards, often turning them into classics. Her legendary songbook recordings were only a part of incredible accomplishments achieved after a tough, likely abusive childhood that led to reform school and homelessness. All of this and more is covered faithfully and lovingly in director Leslie Woodhead’s documentary Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, which at the very least has the good sense to let Fitzgerald and her music do most of the talking.
Feeling very much like an “American Masters” episode (it may still land there), the movie opens with Fitzgerald winning over the touchy crowd (and the top prize) at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night contest at the age of 17; it also happened to be her first public appearance. Even that far back, she was self-conscious of her looks, but that didn’t stop her from often being the only woman allowed on stage with a group of men during the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. She had early hits during the 1930s (“A-Tisket, A-Tasket”) that feel more like novelty records today—insanely catchy, but nothing compared to the resonating either the work she did later during the Bob revolution (in which she redefined scatting) and eventually the songbook records that brought her her greatest success.
Just One of Those Things offers up a host of famous faces, music historians, and even her once-estranged son Ray Brown Jr., who always feels like he’s embellishing his stories, to speak to Ella’s influence and kindness. Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Norma Miller, Johnny Mathis, Cleo Laine, and even Itzhak Perlman are on hand to either tell stories about working with Fitzgerald, meeting her, or just adoring her music.
But when the testimonials are put aside and the filmmaker simply lets the music play, that’s when the movie really shines. You can talk about music all day, but sometimes hearing one song from beginning to end makes the case for its greatness. Those interviewed who offer context are perhaps the most useful here, but the pure perfection of Fitzgerald’s voice throughout her entire career brings it all home. The archival footage is bountiful and sometimes quite illuminating (a live duet with longtime fan Frank Sinatra is a standout).
The documentary accomplishes a great and difficult balancing act, appealing to both newcomers to Fitzgerald’s music as well as long-time fans who just want to see and hear anything rare from their idol. The film’s greatest flaw is that it’s only about 90 minutes, and clearly it could have gone twice as long and been all the more informative and entertaining. As it stands, it’s a nice sampler of facts and music; considering this is the first feature-length doc to cover Fitzgerald’s life, she deserves a more epic treatment.
The film is available through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program, beginning Friday.
On Sunday, June 28 at 6pm, the film’s producer, Reggie Nadelon, and author/music critic Will Friedwald will be joined by author Margo Jefferson (Negroland) and singer/saxophone player Camille Thurman for a Q&A discussion—watch the free event live here.
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