If you look up the word ‘sublime’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Ella Fitzgerald singing. Or at least, there absolutely should be. Her singing is incredibly beautiful, and her influence on the world of jazz is unparalleled. With this in mind comes a new screening of 2019’s biographic documentary Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, being screened across the US on Friday, June 26th.
Directed by Leslie Woodhead and narrated by Sharon D. Clarke, the film is relatively straightforward, covering Fitzgerald’s entire life mostly chronologically in a brisk 90 minutes. Contributors interviewed for the biopic include her biographer Judith Tick, Fitzgerald’s friends like dancers Norma Miller and Patti Austin, fellow musicians like Smokey Robinson and Tony Bennett, and admirers of Fitzgerald’s like Laura Mvula and Jamie Cullum.
Her adopted son Ray Brown Jr. also provides a rare interview, giving viewers glimpses into home life with Fitzgerald. Samples of her music are also played throughout, which is always a treat. Given its runtime, there sadly isn’t much room to go too deeply into the issues of racism and sexism that she struggled against, or into the worlds of jazz, swing, and bebop in which she made her name. Setting that particular issue aside for now, it’s an interesting look at the life of one of the most influential singers of all time.
Fitzgerald’s story is an iconic rags-to-riches tale, one which the film does a superb job of telling. Life was not always a song and dance for Fitzgerald. She went from homelessness to bandleader by way of success at the Amateur Nights at the Apollo (the talent show to which all others aspire). From there, even as her career went from success to success, especially via her scat-singing and Songbook albums, she continued to face prejudice. During the segregation period, she was turned away from many of the bigger stages in the US for the colour of her skin. Marilyn Monroe famously persuaded the owner of the Mocambo Nightclub to allow Fitzgerald to headline by promising to attend every night. The biopic also recounts an incident in Houston where, thanks to Granz taking down the signs detailing the venue’s segregationist policies, her dressing room was invaded by three detectives in the Houston Police Department and she was arrested. Nobody was hurt, but this kind of discrimination still occurs today – though the police have moved away from invading dressing rooms and into invading homes instead.
And this is where the big issue with the documentary arises: it’s almost too concise a look at her life. The interview with her son is a rare treat, and his glimpses into her home life are absorbing, funny, and touching in equal measure. The issues of racism and sexism against which she struggled her entire life are threaded through the biopic: her house in Beverley Hills had to be bought in the name of “Norman Granz” for two reasons that should be obvious. Fitzgerald gave a radio interview in 1963 during which she commented on the Civil Rights movement. This interview was never broadcast, but clips are played in the biopic, which is interesting, so why not go deeper into one of the biggest issues Fitzgerald faced? Perhaps because Fitzgerald herself felt that “show-people should stay out of politics” – the interview from 1963 is rare as much for not being broadcast as it is because it is one of the few occasions on which Fitzgerald actually commented on the racial politics of the time.
That being said, the film is very much worth watching. The interviewees give keen insight into her influence on the world of jazz, and the memories provided by Ray Brown Jr. justify the whole thing. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Ella Fitzgerald, this is an excellent place to start. Again, tickets are available from Eventive, and there is a follow-up event discussing Ella’s life and works on Sunday, June 28.
Director: Leslie Woodhead
Starring: Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Jamie Cullum, Laura Mvula, Johnny Mathis, Smokey Robinson, Cleo Laine, Andre Previn, Norma Miller, Patti Austin, Izsak Perlman, Margo Jefferson, Will Friedwald, and Ella’s son, Ray Brown Jr.
Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Release Date: June 26, 2020
Run Time: ? minutes