Having an appreciation for jazz music is all about respecting intuitive instrumentation as an art form that can catapult audiences to unimaginable heights. For the “First Lady of Song” with undeniable range Ella Fitzgerald [1917 – 1996], jazz music was her inner sanctum: a resting place where she was most comfortable and could explore the possibilities of her gift and the music she loved so much.
So with Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, the documentary directed by award-winning British filmmaker Leslie Woodhead and produced by journalist/mystery novelist Reggie Nadelson, the highly rhythmic, 89-minute intimate portrait journeys into the life and storied career of one of American music’s most celebrated vocalists. She scats, wails, sings with a honey sweet tone, and belts out notes that can mimic any instrument that accompanies her while effortlessly treading the waters of swing, bebop, lush ballads, nursery rhymes, showtunes, classical, folk songs and selections from the Great American Songbook.
Originally given a theatrical release this past April, Just One of Those Things is now premiering this Friday, June 26 via virtual screenings and streaming services because of the pandemic. And yes, the entire audiovisual experience is far from a tease or a bore. Fitzgerald, a versatile, 13-time Grammy-winning songstress and mistress of improvisation that accumulated over 40 million albums, shines brightly with each performance and musical selection: delivering pitch perfect vocal acrobatics each and every single time as the film flips, crawls and dissolves through family albums, photo negatives (mostly when Fitzgerald is shown at home), flashbacks, never-before-seen home movies, and candid interview footage.
Narrated in part by actress Sharon D. Clarke, sound bites from Fitzgerald fill in blanks [the crown jewel being an eye-opening, never-before-released 1963 radio interview with Fitzgerald unapologetically expressing her views on racism and prejudice in America]. An ensemble cast of recording artists [Patti Austin, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis. Laura Mvula, Tony Bennett], musicians [Dizzy Gillespie, Itzhak Perlman, Andre Previn], writers, Fitzgerald’s band members, her son Ray Brown, Jr. [a rarity!] her management, collaborators and festival curators mention and recall [mostly through humorous anecdotes] how important the first lady of Verve Records is to the pantheon of music.
Just One of Those Things traces the virtuoso and bandleader born Ella Jane Fitzgerald relocating from Newport News, Va. to Yonkers, N.Y. during the Great Migration. Coming from humble beginnings spliced with death, abuse and poverty, the once introverted, aspiring dancer, found her voice [literally] during the Great Depression after captivating a jeering crowd at Apollo Theater’s legendary Amateur Night. The “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “How High the Moon,” and “Mack the Knife” singer evolved out of playing small jazz venues into a consummate performer gracing international stages and concert halls: sharing the spotlight with Chuck Webb, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.
Of course, Just One of Those Things isn’t without its share of tensions that threatened to silence the relentless, passionate Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and Kennedy Center honoree: racism while touring America, sexism from other band members, critics’ assessment of her full-figured body, divorce, and health issues in her later years.
But the film certainly isn’t without its share of triumphs and uplifting moments, too: the extensive repertoire of songs she could retain mentally and reinterpret, film star Marilyn Monroe and bandleader/manager Norman Granz fighting prejudice as her allies, being a dedicated career woman, her love of children and related humanitarian acts towards child welfare, and entertaining countless audiences with her soothing [and intuitive] vocal delivery. What remains constant and magnetic throughout Just One of Those Things is seeing and hearing Fitzgerald assert her place in jazz music and not allowing any force of nature to deter her from her calling.
One view of Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, and it’s clear why she remains untouchable, an undeniable force with song, and an American treasure that was far ahead of her time.