Review: Ella Fitzgerald documentary has its moments

Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune

She was the greatest female singer in the history of jazz, and for sheer technical acuity she probably never will be matched, let alone topped.

So any effort to cast a spotlight on the work of Ella Fitzgerald is welcome, the latest coming in the form of a documentary, “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” streaming from the Detroit Film Theatre website beginning Friday.

Like many such ventures, this one has a few too many talking heads gushing about an acknowledged master via sweeping statements. But there are enough of Fitzgerald’s own words – which should have been featured more prominently – to pique interest. And though snippets of Fitzgerald performing are too brief and too often edged out by superfluous commentary, they at least hint at the scale of her gifts.

Singer Ella Fitzgerald during her performance at the Bal Pare in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Munich, Germany.

Though Fitzgerald often exuded optimism and joy, she did so despite a rough childhood. The death of her mother when Fitzgerald was 13 started a downward spiral that included harsh treatment in reformatory school and a period of homelessness.

Nevertheless, at age 17 she took a shot at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night, in Harlem. Fitzgerald originally intended to dance, but after watching two hoofers perform brilliantly, she decided to sing. She took first prize.

From that moment on, “I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life,” she says in the film.

She soon was performing with drummer Chick Webb’s band, scoring hits at age 19, in 1936, and becoming a national star in 1938 with “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” DownBeat aptly dubbed her “The First Lady of Swing.”

Yet Fitzgerald’s ample physique brought her ridicule. When she once was trapped in an elevator, reporters “wrote about 220 pounds of songstress pulled out by three men,” the film explains.

“I’m no Glamour Girl,” Fitzerald is quoted as having said. “It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out. God gave me this talent to use. So I just stand there and sing.”

But she did so much more than that, evolving from a natural swing singer in the 1930s to the most nimble bebop singer of all in the 1940s and thereafter.

“After Chick, I used to go and jam with Dizzy, and that’s how I learned my bop,” Fitzgerald told me in 1991. “Back then, they used to have places where you could just go and jam, you know? Although they’d be sort of seedy after-hours spots, it was still the place to be.

“So I used to follow Dizzy, travel a couple places with him, and I guess I was just thrilled with what was going on (in Gillespie’s bebop band), and I tried to do it. I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing.”

In fact, she rivaled those horns for speed, accuracy and inventiveness, yet with a tonal suppleness that was unique to her.

As if this weren’t enough, Fitzgerald transformed herself again, via the “Songbook” albums she started recording in the 1950s for impresario Norman Granz. To hear Fitzgerald performing music of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins and others was to hear new profundities in her work.

“I like when Ella sang ballads, I must say, very, very much,” pianist-conductor-composer Andre Previn observes in the film. “I found them very touching, very moving, and I thought she knew what she was talking about.”

The documentary’s most valuable commentary, though, comes from Fitzgerald herself.

Such as her recollections of starting the “Songbook” series with Granz: “First I thought, I said, ‘My God, what is Norman doing? He’s taking me away from my jazz, and who wants to listen to me singing this?’ But it’s funny, I just gained, oh, so many fans all over the world. So it was like a new beginning.”

Or her observations on being arrested with fellow musicians on trumped-up charges while touring the South: “They wouldn’t want us to go in a restaurant for something to eat. And yet the moment I walked in the jail, they were all asking for my autograph.”

Whenever we encounter Fitzgerald singing or speaking, the film takes flight. Unfortunately, the profusion of commentary proves ponderous. One talking head expounds on the deeper meaning of Fitzgerald’s sweat (really). Another calls her a “freak of nature.”

Fitzgerald’s insights tower over such silliness, of course.

“Through the years, when I look back and think about all I’ve been through, I sometimes ask myself, Was it worth it?” she said to me in 1991 (she died in 1996 at age 79).

“Then I look at all these things in my (California) home,” she added, referring to her National Medal of Arts, Grammys, honorary doctorate degrees and more.

“And I say to myself, Well, my gosh, maybe it was worth it.

“I’m grateful to see all these awards and things, because it makes me feel like somebody loved me.”

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