By Ali Moosavi.
She has been called The First Lady of Song and Queen of Jazz, titles which Ella Fitzgerald truly earned. In the documentary, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things (2019), veteran British documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead charts Ella’s life from becoming a teenage orphan, running away from home, being sent to brutal reform schools, living through the Great Depression of the 1930’s through Civil Rights riots of the Sixties, to achieve stardom. It is a tale well worth telling. Leslie Woodhead is no novice when it comes to music related documentaries, having made Stones in the Park, about a Rolling Stones concert in London’s Hyde Park, back in 1969. For this documentary he has assembled fascinating archival footage which has been brilliantly edited together and augmented with new interviews with Patti Austin, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis, Jamie Cullum, Tony Bennet, Cleo Laine, Andre Previn, Laura Mvula, and Itzhak Perlman.
One thing that is immediately apparent is the sharpness of the old B&W films and photos and the amazing crisp sound of the music used here. This is not just a documentary about one of the greatest singers in the history of jazz music. Woodhead masterfully recreates an era where the most vital music was to be found in Harlem’s legendary places such as the Apollo Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom. The music of that era sounds just as fresh and exciting today. One watches this documentary while continuously snapping the fingers and tapping the toes.
In the archive films and photos, we see Ella with other legends of her era: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. Ella’s story is that of an African American woman overcoming all the odds, which were considerable by any measure, to achieve her dreams. She was tough and single-minded, but her life experience made her that way. Two men played pivotal roles in her life. After Ella won an amateur contest while in her early teens, she was invited to join the great drummer and band leader Chick Webb as the sole female in his band. He really kickstarted her career. Chick Webb suffered a great deal physically, described then as a “dwarf” and a “hunchback,” but he put Ella’s name on the map and, after he passed away aged only 30, she became the band leader. The second man was her manager Norman Granz who by any measure was an extraordinary person. Career wise, he made the shrewd move of getting Ella to sing some of the standards from the Great American Songbook and started a record company to publish these records. These elevated Ella to a mainstream bestselling artist. However, Granz’s influence went far beyond her career. Granz was a liberal in the true sense of the word, always fighting for justice and equality, especially for African Americans. He fought for Ella to be allowed to sing in major nightclubs and concert halls which traditionally were for white performers and audiences only. He also fought with TV and radio producers who were reluctant to book black artists. One of the bizarre facts was that although white folks rushed to Harlem clubs to hear black singers, they did not want to see them performing at their own haunts where only white performers sang.
Woodhead’s film is full of small gems of fascinating incidents in Ella’s life. When a Las Vegas nightclub wouldn’t book Ella, Marilyn Monroe personally went to see the club’s manager and warned him that if Ella doesn’t sing there, she would boycott the place and the manager backed down. When Ella was arrested in the South on a trumped-up charge, upon her release the police officers asked for her autograph! At height of her popularity when Ella decided to buy a house in Beverly Hills, there was a concerted effort by its residents to prevent her from doing so. One of President Roosevelt’s sons was a huge fan of Ella, but this didn’t really help her in any meaningful way.
Ella had a natural gift for music. She effortlessly changed styles from big band jazz to Bebop to singing ballads and standards. In a concert in Berlin, when she couldn’t remember some of the verses of Mack the Knife, she just made them up and did it in such a enchanting manner that nobody noticed!
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is also far more than a documentary about Ella’s life. It also serves as a chronicle of the lives of African Americans from the 30’s up to the late 90’s. During the Great Depression, blacks were fired to provide jobs for whites. We see black soldiers fighting for USA in WWII only to be treated as second-class citizens upon their return home. Images of Ku Klux Klan burning crosses still sends a shiver through the body. How through all these obstacles and hardships an orphaned and homeless African American girl not only survived but broke all the barriers to become a major music star is nothing short of a miracle. As Itzhak Perlman remarks in the film, “there’s only one thing that you cannot teach and that’s a certain magic.” Ella Fitzgerald certainly possessed that magic.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).