In 1934, a 17-year-old girl with skinny legs and a stained dress ascended to the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater for Amateur Night. She wanted to be dancer, but as she watched Apollo stars the Edwards Sisters’ agile footwork during the pro part of the evening, she knew she could not follow that. So, she switched gears, opened her mouth to sing and Ella Fitzgerald began her legend. Leslie Woodhead, who began his documentary directing career in 1969 with The Stones in the Park and has made films on everything from the Polish Solidarity movement to the post-9/11 manhunt for Osama bin Laden to Princess Diana, pays glorious homage to the First Lady of Song with this spellbinding documentary.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is tailormade for Fitzgerald’s fans with its wealth of archival performances but it is also a splendid introduction to the artist. The doc fills in the biographical details of her life, while also offering a scintillating picture of a singular career in which she became known for her scat singing, novelty hits, and mastery of the Great American Songbook. There are plenty of interviews with performers ranging from those who knew Fitzgerald like Tony Bennett and Cleo Laine to a new generation in awe of her talent like Laura Mvula and Jamie Cullum. Fitzgerald’s son, musician Ray Brown Jr., writer and critic Margo Jefferson, and Fitzgerald biographer Judith Tick add further details to the portrait.
Nonagenarian dancer Norma Miller sets the stage for the documentary as she recalls being a 14-year-old in the balcony of the Apollo during that first performance, she and her friends laughing at the bedraggled teen – laughter that stopped when Ella started to sing. By 1935, Fitzgerad was the vocalist for bandleader Chick Webb. At 21 in 1938, she had her first number one hit with “A-Tisket-A-Tasket.”
From hardscrabble beginnings, Fitzgerald rose to worldwide stardom despite the racism that dogged her throughout her career. Segregated facilities and top nightclubs that would not book her despite her fame were only the tip of the iceberg. A frequent guest on TV variety shows, she longed for a series of her own, but could only get one TV special. Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things contains excerpts from a radio interview she did in the early 1960s in which a singer who rarely talked about politics or social issues frankly discussed racism. The interview never aired.
Twenty-four years after her death, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things pays fitting tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest performers. Among the songs to which she put her signature was George and Ira Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” The title is an understatement when describing Fitzgerald’s brilliant career, as this documentary so fascinatingly reveals. –Pam Grady
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is available at the Roxie and other virtual cinemas through July 10.
On Sunday, June 28, 7pm ET/4pm PT, the Roxie hosts a Q&A with producer Reggie Nadelson, author and critic Margo Jefferson, singer and musician Camille Thurman, and journalist Will Friedwald. To RSVP: https://watch.eventive.org/ellamovie/play/5ececfe4999499004e6045a4