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When a nervous 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1934, the legendary Harlem theater’s talent contest was new, and the orphaned teen hadn’t planned to sing. She was going to dance, as she had been doing on street corners in the neighborhood. But the Edwards Sisters, hoofers par excellence, preceded her in the lineup, and their showstopping act was one that she didn’t dare follow. So she sang.
With that spur-of-the-moment decision, the girl who would become one of the all-time greats set her life on its singular trajectory, unleashing a voice of staggering range, power, suppleness and unparalleled improvisatory genius. In one of the many excellent new interviews in Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, dancer Norma Miller recalls being a rowdy teen in the balcony of that historic Apollo show, and joining in the jeers and boos when the scraggly girl in dirty clothes took the stage. Then Fitzgerald’s voice filled the room. “She shut us up so quick,” Miller says, “you could hear a rat piss on cotton.”
Release date: Jun 26, 2020
Gathering new interviews and a fine selection of archival material, British documentarian Leslie Woodhead tells Fitzgerald’s story with a sure feel for the joyous swing and sultry depths of that voice, and a sensitive eye on the complexities of life as a self-made Black woman in 20th century America. The doc’s virtual cinema release includes a June 28 conversation and Q&A led by producer Reggie Nadelson, who conducted the film’s interviews.
Among those he spoke with are singers representing several generations, from relative youngsters Laura Mvula and Jamie Cullum to showbiz veterans including Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Cleo Laine and an especially memorable Patti Austin. Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown Jr., himself a musician, offers incisive commentary, but his feelings for his mother perhaps come through most powerfully when he croons a few lines of his favorite Ella recording, the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
With evocative footage of the streets and stage venues of New York, Woodhead follows the story through the Harlem Renaissance, the Swing era, the Depression, World War II and the postwar years. Jazz impresario George Wein (now 94) recalls some of Fitzgerald’s career moves and management issues, conductor Itzhak Perlman extols the magic of her phrasing, and writers Will Friedwald, Margo Jefferson and Judith Tick lend historical context to the biography.
As a child Fitzgerald was part of the Great Migration, the wave of Black Americans leaving the South for industrialized northern cities. In her case the move, with her mother and stepfather, was from Newport News, Virginia, to Yonkers, New York. After her mother’s death when Fitzgerald was 13, it’s suspected that she endured abuse at home, and it’s documented that she was mistreated in a state-run reformatory, from which she escaped. Stepping onto the Apollo stage was one of a series of acts of self-liberation.
Her Apollo triumph notwithstanding, Fitzgerald’s story is defined not so much by serendipity as it is by hard work and perseverance to match her prodigious talent. Drummer Chick Webb, a popular Harlem bandleader, was resistant at first but became a mentor and made her the featured singer for his big band, and in the process a nationally known star. She recorded her first hit single at 19, and took over as bandleader after Webb’s untimely death. (Photographs of the mourners who filled the streets for the funeral in his native Baltimore attest to his popularity and suggest a life story that should be more widely known.)
Though she would eventually be known as the First Lady of Song, Fitzgerald also had to withstand being called “the plump chanteuse.” That she didn’t fit the glamour mold might have haunted her in appearance-obsessed showbiz, but what comes across in candid behind-the-scenes footage of her with Duke Ellington and Count Basie — not to mention a home movie of the elderly Fitzgerald at a kids’ backyard birthday party — is a spirited humility, dignity, geniality and ease. Mvula describes how thrilling it was for her to discover a monumental singer who looked like she could have been her grandmother: “a Black woman that was really Black.”
“Everything was race,” Miller says of the jazz heyday. “You couldn’t go outside your zone.” Black people could work at the Cotton Club, onstage and off, but not go there as customers. Years later, in Los Angeles, the color barrier persisted even for performers at the city’s hotspots, and it took the threats and clout of Fitzgerald superfan Marilyn Monroe to secure the singer a crucial booking at the Mocambo.
Woodhead excerpts a 1963 radio interview in which an atypically unguarded Fitzgerald speaks about the exhausting reality of racial inequality. (It was never broadcast.) Her Beverly Hills home had to be purchased in the name of her white manager, Norman Granz. The man who founded the Verve label for Fitzgerald and took her career to a new level, Granz could also be controlling; a backstage scene in which he leans in for a kiss from his client carries a heavy undertow.
The film acknowledges, through Fitzgerald’s own words as well as a wrenching rendition of “A House Is Not a Home,” a sense of romantic disappointment in the long years after her brief marriage to bebop bass player Ray Brown. They kept working together after their divorce, a testament to the primacy of the work for Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald’s fans will probably be this film’s chief audience. (I’m one of them, lucky enough to have seen her in concert, at Carnegie Hall, and to feel her joyful sound firsthand.) Ideally it will open new eyes and ears to the work of an immortal artist, an incomparable interpreter of the Great American Songbook and a scat singer nonpareil.
The latter talent reached an apex with her 1960 scat version of “How High the Moon” during a Berlin show. Within five minutes she quoted the melodies of more than 40 songs in a wide range of genres, many of their titles reeled off here by a well-versed and still astounded Friedwald. Speaking of the transcendent way his mother turned her sublime voice into an instrumental soloist, Brown Jr. likens the feat to “skipping through puddles that could be six feet deep, and never sinking.” Just One of Those Things suggests that this was her approach not just to wordless musical improvisation but to life itself.
Available in virtual and in-house cinemas
Production company: Eagle Rock Films
Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Narrator: Sharon D. Clarke
Director: Leslie Woodhead
Producer: Reggie Nadelson
Executive producers: Terry Shand, Geoff Kempin, Jonathan Clyde
Cinematography: Roger Chapman, Andrew Muggleton, Tim Sutton, Peter Nelson, Allan Palmer, David Waterston
Editor: Ian Meller
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