Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is the latest in a slew of solid if not particularly groundbreaking music documentaries celebrating the life and legacy of a pioneering artist. The film highlights Fitzgerald’s challenging childhood, her personal and professional struggles and triumphs, and the vocal talents that made her an international star during some turbulent times in American history. But it only soars when Ella sings. Jazz, swing, blues, scat, broadway theater music. It’s easy to understand how she came to be known as “The First Lady of Song” aka “The Queen of Jazz” aka “Lady Ella.”
The documentary begins as Ella’s career did – at the Apollo Theater in Harlem where, in 1934, a teenage Ella performed on stage during amateur night. By 1938, she was a star, catapulted by a little ditty she co-wrote called “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” backed by the Chick Webb Orchestra. She even managed to make a song called “Chew, Chew Chew (Your Bubblegum)” sound rather cool.
The film features archival footage, photos and recordings as well as interviews with a variety of people who knew or were influenced by Ella, including Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, 99-year-old dancer Norma “The Queen of Swing” Miller, English jazz-pop musician Jamie Cullum, and her son Ray Brown Jr.
I was surprised how many tunes I recognized throughout the 89-minute documentary. Ella built quite the repertoire over the course of six decades. The film skirts over a lot of her personal life and (based on a quick Wikipedia read) leaves out some rather interesting details. But it does provide a few insightful nuggets, from Brown in particular, and also from a radio interview that never aired. In it, she takes a rare opportunity to vent about race relations and how embarrassing it was for the country that black musicians couldn’t perform in the South, yet they were welcomed with open arms around the world. Embarrassing indeed.
Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996 at the age of 79. The release of the documentary coincides with the celebration of Jazz Heritage Month and serves as a fitting reminder of her place in music history.
[Note from the distributors: “In light of recent events surrounding COVID-19, all theatrical screening dates of the documentary film Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things are being postponed at this time. New dates will be announced in the future. On behalf of Eagle Rock Entertainment / Landmark Theatres, please stay safe.”]