Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things


The legend in action.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Okonedo (narrator), Sharon D. Clark (narrator), Ray Brown Jr., Judith Tick, Smokey Robinson, Norma Miller, Patti Austin, Andre Previn, George Wien, Johnny Mathis, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett, Laura Myula, Margo Jefferson, Gregg Field, Will Friedwald, Kenny Barron, Norman Granz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Laine, Alexis MorrastDirected by Leslie Woodhead

 

So many of the great musicians of the mid-20th century jazz scene are little more than names to most Americans now; some night even that. Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was a giant in her time, one of the defining voices of American music, one whose career spanned six decades.

Her career almost never happened. Part of the Great Migration of African-Americans moving from the South to the industrialized North in search of a better life, she moved to Yonkers as a child with her mother and stepfather. Her mother died when Fitzgerald was just 13 (the result of injuries incurred in a car accident), ending up living on the streets of New York after a stint in reform school where the abuse was so pervasive that she ran away. Only a victory in a 1934 talent show at the Apopllo Theater in Harlem would save her.

Discovered by the “King of Jazz Drummers” Chick Webb who led one of the most popular bands in New York at the time, Fitzgerald became a star after recording “A Tisket, A Tasket” – a jazzed up version of a nursery rhyme that Fitzgerald co-wrote) and she never looked back.

She embraced scat singing as World War II began and became one of its most accomplished practitioners. After the war, she recorded a string of hits for the Verve label (a jazz label founded specifically to market her) and became a mainstay touring around the world, often on the road for nine months of the year. That made it difficult to sustain a relationship with her only child, Ray Brown Jr., who became a musician himself although his relationship with his mother was often distant – the two rarely spoke during the last ten years of her life.

The movie utilizes archival footage that frames the times that Fitzgerald grew up in, as well as illustrating the racism that she faced throughout her life. When she purchased a house in Beverly Hills, she had to use her white manager Norman Granz to do it, despite the fact that she had more than enough cash to buy the house outright.

There is performance footage and we get a sense of the passion and the power of Fitzgerald’s craft. It could be said that she was married to her career; throughout most of her life it was her focus. She did love children and founded a foundation that helped provide food and healthcare to at-risk kids in the last years of her life, but mainly she expressed herself through her music; she was a highly private individual who rarely talked about her feelings in interviews, with a notable exception – a radio interview in 1963 when she finally spoke out against the racial injustice she had seen and that her people continued to deal with. The interview was never aired, a postscript that echoes through these uncertain and volatile times.

Her story is told largely in a chronological fashion, interspersed with interviews of contemporaries (both archival and modern), as well as a younger generation who recognize her influence on modern music. While the testimonials are glowing, the film largely fails to draw the lines between her music and modern music and when the movie ends, doesn’t really elucidate what her legacy is.

What survives first and foremost is the music and we get a fair sampling of  it and we are left to marvel at her control and her phrasing. The movie is available on virtual cinema for the next couple of weeks (fans can benefit the Tampa Theater, the Polk Theater in Lakeland or the O Cinema in Miami (see the virtual cinematic experience link for a line-up of theaters across the country). It is also playing at the Enzian for those who want the big screen experience which I would highly recommend.

REASONS TO SEE: The soundtrack is simply amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is abrupt and really doesn’t analyze her legacy at as much as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of racism including some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fitzgerald won the legendary Apollo Theater’s talent contest in 1934, she hadn’t planned to sing but to dance as she had on Harlem street corners, but when she was preceded by the Edwards Sisters (two of the best dancers to ever come out of Harlem), she changed her mind and sang, believing she could never win against the sisters with dancing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Keep On Keepin’ On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Soul Men


Soul Men

The show must go on, even in THOSE suits.

(MGM) Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Hayes, Sharon Leal, Isaac Hayes, Jennifer Coolidge, John Legend, Affion Crockett, Adam Herschman, Fatso Fasano, Jackie Long. Directed by Malcolm Lee

Bernie Mac was one of those rare talents who was not only a great comedian but was widely praised for being one of the genuinely nice guys in the business. He’s the sort who would take his sister’s kids in and raise them as his own while she battled drug addiction. The world lost a great one when he passed away.

Marcus Hooks (Legend) was one of the great ones in soul music. Starting out with the Memphis R&B sensations Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, he moved on to solo super-stardom. His former backing singers, the Real Deal, went on to obscurity, with Floyd Henderson (Mac) moving on to success in the business world, while Louis Hinds (Jackson) went on to a life of crime. They haven’t seen each other in the twenty years since the band broke up amid great acrimony, having generated one charting single in the post-Marcus Hooks era.

Now Hooks has died and the music industry is falling all over itself to pay tribute to the man who generated so much cash. A tribute show has been set for the Apollo Theater, and the Real Deal has been invited. Floyd, who’s been forced into retirement by his son-in-law, wants to do the show not so much for the money but as a means of showing he’s not ready to be put out to pasture. Louis is much less inclined to do the show; he’s done his jail time and is working in obscurity at an auto repair shop; he’s finally talked into it but it’s clear that the issue that tore the band apart – a woman, as it turns out – is still on Louis’ mind.

Since Louis has a fear of flying (although he would never admit to it), the two must travel from the West Coast to the East in Floyd’s vintage Caddy. Along the way they’ll meet Cleo (Leal), the daughter of the woman who split them apart and a real talent in her own right and Phillip (Herschman), a hero-worshipping intern at the record company who yearns to manage the legendary pair, who bicker like an old married couple. Floyd wants the two to do some shows on the road by way of rehearsal for the big tribute, which could be their ticket back into the big time but given the incendiary nature of the two, it remains to be seen if they can get over being their own worst enemies and make it to the show on time.

The movie’s central crux is the relationship between Floyd and Louis, and fortunately, the chemistry is there. Mac and Jackson (who were friends before the movie) banter back and forth comfortably and you can sense the bond that’s there. The two also do a credible job of singing and dancing in the movie; they don’t have to be great, since they’re depicting two performers past their prime, but they have to be at least good and the two are that.

Those who love the Stax/Volt music of the mid-60s through the late-70s are going to love the soundtrack here. The filmmakers wisely don’t spoof the sound but rather pay tribute to it, and in a graceful move, employ many of the original Stax/Volt backing musicians of the era on the soundtrack. That lends an authenticity to the music that you just couldn’t duplicate or even approximate.

I do wish that the movie had been a bit less formula. Some of the comedy doesn’t work nearly as well as you’d expect with a giant like Bernie Mac in the equation and the plot is contrived with twists that are telegraphed a mile down the highway, even in a vintage Cadillac. I suppose that there is a certain comfort factor to that; while the movie felt a little familiar, I would have liked a little more edge to it but that’s just me.

This would be the last movie not only for Bernie Mac but for soul legend Isaac Hayes, who has an extended cameo as himself, as well – the two men died within a day of each other in August 2008. It’s hard to say if this is a fitting tribute to two giants of the entertainment industry but it will have to do.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Mac and Jackson is first rate. Musical numbers are credible old school Stax/Volt soul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The laughs can get a bit forced in places and talent of this caliber deserved a better script.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough for most children and there is a bit of nudity; it should be fine for mature teenagers however.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s narrator is Randy Jackson of “American Idol” fame.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some nice tribute features to Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, and a nice featurettes on the friendship between Mac and Jackson that existed before the movie did.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Best Friend’s Girl