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

Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music


The city of music, and a river runs through it.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockTerrence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Ivan Neville, Sting, Robert Plant, Arthel Neville, Manny Fresh, Herlin Riley, Ben Jaffe, Jon Cleary, Alan Light, Steve Gadd, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Cosimo Matassa, Michael White, Earl Palmer, Keith Richards, Allen Toussaint, Branford Marsalis, Irma Thomas, Charmaine Neville. Directed by Michael Murphy

 

New Orleans is a city unique to itself. Alone among cities in the United States, it has influences from France, Spain, Africa, and indigenous natives; all has blended into a flavor that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. New Orleans is well-know for its cuisine, for the beauty of its French Quarter, it’s resilience following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina but perhaps most of all, for its music.

New Orleans musicians had a hand in creating jazz, blues, rock and roll, and hip-hop. The music is infectious in the Crescent City. It is not music to sit down and contemplate your navel to – it is music to get up and shake your booty to. This documentary captures the spirit of the music perhaps better than my words ever could. Michael Murphy has crafted a documentary worthy of its subject, and that’s no easy task.

We get a sense of the history of how music had always been a big part of New Orleans, from slaves drumming in Congo Square, to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, (whom many believe is the greatest gospel performer who ever lived and yes, she started out here) to the gumbo rock of the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Radiators and Dr. John to the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Wynton Marsalis, Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton, to the unforgettable rock/R&B stylings of pioneer Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint.

The passion for the music and the love of its residents for the city and each other is more than evident; it makes you want to move down there and be a part of it. You want to get out and dance in the streets with a brass band that just happens to wander by. You want to hang out at Preservation Hall and listen to the music that made New Orleans what it has always been. You’ll even want to share a plate of red beans and rice with some of these men and women who are musical royalty but also incredibly down to earth.

There’s enough material in the subject matter to do a mini-series (somebody please call Ken Burns) and you get a sense that the filmmakers are just touching the surface, but it’s nonetheless a satisfying movie with some wonderful archival footage of legends like Armstrong and Domino, along with more current footage of Mannie Fresh and the Radiators, as well as some performances by local heroes and legends but the amazing thing is the music. It’s the kind of music that was meant for a party, and best of all, we’re all invited. This is an essential documentary for anyone serious about American music.

For those looking to check it out at home, follow this link to order the film through the Enzian’s On Demand program. 50% of the rental fee goes to support the Enzian whose doors are closed currently due to the pandemic. While they have a lot of great films available for your viewing pleasure (eight at any given time), this is the one to order if you can only order one.

REASONS TO SEE: Amazing music. Fascinating historic footage. Captures the unique quality of New Orleans and the fierce devotion of its residents. Extremely informative. Leaves you wanting to explore the music of New Orleans further.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is a bit unwieldly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blanchard, whose father was an opera fan, will be the first African-American composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York later this ear.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ken Burns’ Jazz
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Dumplin’