Whether you are a fan of Ella Fitzgerald or a newcomer eager to know why she’s universally considered the “First Lady of Song” or the “Queen of Jazz,” Leslie Woodhead’s new documentary, “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” is a too-brief 90 minutes in Fitzgerald’s glorious company.
The film, available for streaming through the Jane Pickens Theater, is a lively look at Fitzgerald’s more than 60- year career as the world’s preeminent swing and jazz vocalist. There’s rich archival footage of Harlem in the 1920s and ‘30s; dynamic concert performances; and commentary from musicians including Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson and Johnny Mathis; dancer Norma Miller, who toured with Fitzgerald; writer Margo Jefferson; and impresario George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.
The film reveals the extent of Fitzgerald’s hardscrabble early years, which may come as a sad surprise to even her most devoted admirers. Born in 1917 in Virginia, Fitzgerald was raised in Yonkers, New York by a mother she adored who died from injuries in a car accident when Fitzgerald was 15. Her stepfather abused her and Fitzgerald ran away, landing in a girls’ reform school, where she was beaten. She escaped and fled to Harlem, where she lived on the streets, dancing on corners for change, and dreaming of performing as a dancer at the famed amateur night at the Apollo Theater.
When that opportunity came in 1934, she saw that there was another, better dancing act on the bill. So, she decided to sing instead. The 16-year-old brought down the house.
As a rising star with the Chick Webb Orchestra, Fitzgerald had several hits, including the chart-topper “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” and took over the band after Webb’s untimely death. By the 1940s, the “heady cocktail” of bebop blew away swing as the premier form of jazz. Fitzgerald developed her unique scat singing style and became just as much an influential, improvisational musician as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Performing alongside these male trailblazers, Fitzgerald more than proved their equal in her “musical adventurousness,” as Jefferson calls it, in this daring new landscape.
After Verve Records founder Norman Granz became her agent, she emerged as a key figure in Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts around the world.
It was Granz who pushed Fitzgerald to record the Great American Songbook. Her interpretations of songs by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and others not only cemented her superstar status, it created a new audience for the then under-appreciated repertoire.
The film presents entertaining concert footage, such as Fitzgerald’s duet with Frank Sinatra on “The Lady is a Tramp;” her legendary rendition of “How High the Moon” during a memorable 1960 show in Berlin when she exploded with a five-minute musical riff that incorporated some 40 random tunes; and “Mack the Knife” during which she playfully improvised when she forgot a verse.
The film charts the virulent racism of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s when Fitzgerald toured the world and was embraced in Berlin and Tokyo, yet was unwelcome in the American south. Granz had to buy her house in Beverly Hills because, as a black woman, despite her fame, she couldn’t purchase it herself.
Besides racism, there was the sexism of the time. Fitzgerald wasn’t a glamour girl, and the press was often merciless in criticizing her weight. She wanted her own television variety show, like many of the music artists at the time, but was denied the chance.
So, she just kept on singing and touring endlessly. It endeared her to legions of audiences, but took its toll on her health (she died in 1996) and on her personal life, though the film doesn’t delve too deeply into this aspect.
She married and later divorced her Chick Webb bass player Ray Brown, and they adopted a son, Ray Brown, Jr. A musician himself, Brown offers intimate recollections of life with Fitzgerald. There are wonderful old photos of the singer playing backyard baseball with her young son, even though Brown and his mother were later estranged for some time.
But the film’s primary strength is in Fitzgerald’s jaw-dropping singing. Whether a standard like “Just One of Those Things” or her peerless scat style, the film showcases the supreme talent of Ella Fitzgerald. It is an entertaining and inspiring tribute to her musical genius.