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

Satan & Adam


The ultimate odd couple.

(2018) Music Documentary (Cargo) Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, Adam Gussow, Harry Shearer, The Edge, Al Sharpton, Kevin Moore, Phil Joanou, Bobby Robinson, Joan Gussow, Frank Migliorelli, TC Carr, Quentin Davis, Miss Maicy, Jeremy Jemott, Peter Noel, Margo Lewis, Rachel Faro. Directed by V. Scott Balcerek

 

The blues can be a beautiful thing. I think (and many agree) that no music touches every aspect of the human spirit the way the blues does. The blues can be sad yes but it can be cathartic, make you feel good when you feel down, bind us together (who hasn’t had the blues at one time or another?) and give us guidance. The blues is wisdom, man.

Adam Gussow had the blues one afternoon in 1986. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and the Princeton grad (and Columbia grad student) was walking around, finding himself in Harlem near the Apollo theater. I imagine if he’d been thinking about it clearly, he might not have ambled into that part of town so easily; New York City in 1986 was rife with racial tensions and people as lily white as Gussow were regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility there.

About a block north of the legendary Apollo Theater he heard music and saw a crowd gathering. Being a harmonica player himself, he was curious and listened to the man identifying himself as Mr. Satan’s One-Man Band. The man who called himself Mr. Satan played hi-hat and tambourine using pedals and played the kind of guitar that rubs the soul raw. Totally in the right space for this Mississippi Delta blues, the white Gussow asked Mr. Satan if he could sit in on a couple of tunes. The older African-American man said sure. And lo and behold, the white boy could play. Afterwards, the young Ivy League grad asked if he could come back. Satan said sure. So Adam came back. And soon he was a regular partner. Mr. Satan noticed that the crowds were bigger when Adam played; it was a novelty that a white man could play the blues like that. While there was some grumbling that Adam was just another white man out to appropriate the music of black musicians, the partnership between Satan and Adam continued to grow and blossom.

The story of this duo is not your usual music industry tale. The duo would go on to record an album for the prestigious Flying Fish label, tour Europe and play such events as the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival. They were on the cusp of being a big act in the blues market…and then Mr. Satan just disappeared.

The movie takes place over a 20-year span. Balcerek first ran into the pair playing on the streets of New York City and became absolutely entranced with their story. He’s been filming them off and on over that time, sometimes in black and white (particularly the early years) but also in color. He buttresses the performance footage with interviews not only with the musicians themselves but by those in their orbit; friends, fellow musicians, celebrities. I was surprised to learn that the two were spotted by director Phil Joanou when he was filming the U2 concert documentary Rattle and Hum and U2’s guitarist The Edge was so taken with them that he put a snippet of their performance of the song “Freedom for My People” on the soundtrack.

I don’t want to spoil too much about their story; I’m deliberately leaving a lot of things out which will have greater impact if you experience them without any foreknowledge. The tone is pretty low-key and even some of the emotional highlights don’t hit you like a sucker punch but still there is a melancholic tone that reflects the music nicely.

And that music! Mr. Satan, whose birth name was Sterling Magee, is one of those raw, natural talents who come along every so often and simply rewrite the book. Think of him as up there with Sun Ra (jazz), George Clinton (funk) and Jimi Hendrix (rock). Yeah, he’s that good. Gussow compliments his sound nicely, not quite in the same league as a musician but wise enough to know that his main job is to support Mr. Satan.

Needless to say, a guy who calls himself Mr. Satan is kind of an interesting cat and you’ll be captivated by him. Magee can be charming although he has a temperamental streak as well and Adam learned when to tread carefully around him when he was in a bad mood. But once onstage, Magee was as joyful a human being as there ever was – it radiates from his face and from his smile. He reminds us that while the blues may be rooted in a particular set of emotions, there is joy in playing the blues at the absolute best of your abilities.

The story is unusual enough to make this a different kind of music documentary. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but even those who aren’t blues fans will be captivated – and who knows, it might win over a few converts. While as a documentary this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, it is compact enough that it doesn’t require an exorbitant investment of time nor does it overstay its welcome. At the same time, you get to hear some raw street blues, some of the best you’ll ever hear. That alone has got to be worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one. The music is incendiary.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit of a lull in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Magee played in the bands of James Brown, Etta James and Marvin Gaye (among others) and had a solo career on Ray Charles’ label before walking out on the music industry in disgust.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hail, Satan?

Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

Before You Know It


Ty at the crossroads of his life.

Ty at the crossroads of his life.

(2013) Documentary (Unraveled) Robert “The Mouth,” Ty, Dennis. Directed by PJ Raval

Florida Film Festival 2014

Prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York, there was no Gay Liberation. Gay men were marginalized as freaks and sissies and were subject to harassment, bullying and arrest without cause. The courts treated gay men – and women – with contempt.

Fast-forward forty-plus years. The men of that era are senior citizens now. The world is changing around them, much of it due to the hard work and organizing of their generation. Some of them had a hand in those changes themselves.

Ty, for example, remains an activist with SAGE, a group that creates a space where the elderly gay can gather, socialize and let off steam in a safe environment. He is based in Harlem, which as he notes has no gay bars. New York is on the cusp of legalizing gay marriage and they are heady times in the Empire State. At a local street fair celebrating the African-American experience, SAGE sets up a booth. Ty is a bit worried how the straight black citizens will react but as it turns out they are much more accepting than he expects.

Ty, like his peers, is overjoyed when the state ratifies same sex marriages but that leads to a different sort of situation. His partner, Stanton, is not so sure he wants to get married. Both Ty and Stanton are getting on in age and Stanton thinks that a wedding at their age would be superfluous, a point of view that Ty doesn’t agree with at all. However, Stanton seems to be open to keeping the lines of communication on the subject open.

Dennis splits his time between Niceville, Florida and Portland, Oregon in a retirement home geared towards gay and lesbian residents. His family in Florida isn’t aware of his sexual orientation; he was married for many years to a woman who was aware that Dennis liked (and continues to like) to dress up in women’s clothing. When he’s in full drag he calls himself Dee and reminded me a little too uncomfortably much of my mother-in-law, facially.

It wasn’t until after his wife passed away that Dennis finally felt free to explore his sexuality as a gay man and it seems like he is being pulled slowly out of his shell by the open and accepting population of Rainbow Ridge, the retirement home in Portland. He signs up for a gay cruise and even marches in a gay pride parade in Portland. Feeling neglected and forgotten by his family in Florida, he seems ready to sever ties and take up full-time residence with his new family in Portland.

Robert “the Mouth” has known he was gay from an early age. He is the owner of Robert’s Lafitte bar in Galveston which has become something of a home for the drag queens and gay men of the area. His nephew helps Robert run the bar although Robert still continues to perform occasionally in the drag show that the bar continues to present regularly.

Robert’s health is failing, due in large part to a lawsuit being brought against the bar because a patron of the bar drove home drunk and got into an accident, killing the members of the family bringing the suit against the bar. While there is some evidence that the patron in question may have stopped at another bar to drink further, Robert’s nephew is fully aware that if they lose the suit, the bar will have to close, leaving a lot of locals without a home.

The stories are blended together nicely without giving any one of the three short shrift. All three of the stories are compelling but none more than that of Robert. He is as lively and outrageous a queen as you’re likely to meet but despite the acerbic comments and insults he dishes out with great glee, there’s a big heart there. He has a big personality and a big wit. He’s the kind of guy you want at every party.

Ty is more the grandfatherly sort, a man who wears his wisdom on his sleeve. He’s not really the flamboyant sort but he is passionate about his cause and works very hard to make the world a better place – at least his corner of it – for the gay men and women of his community. I admire him tremendously after seeing his story here.

I was struck by Dennis’ loneliness. He seems to be a man who has been in a cocoon for most of his life and is just beginning to peer out and realize that he’s a butterfly, but there’s a shyness to him that’s endearing and a little sad. There are times he seems to be waiting for something to happen for him; I hope that he gets the self-confidence to make something happen.

I wish that Raval had been a bit more judicious in the editing bay. He spends too long on the three Gay Pride parades that he covers (well, one’s a Mardi Gras parade but still) and he tends to linger on certain scenes a little more than he needs to.

Still, the stories are compelling enough to be worth a look. Each one brought out a different emotion in me; joy in the case of Robert “The Mouth” (a cultural icon waiting to happen if ever I saw one), sympathy in the case of Dennis/Dee and respect and admiration in the case of Ty. These are three men who I wouldn’t mind spending time with, gay or straight. At a certain point, sexual orientation doesn’t matter because in the end that’s just a label – it’s the person behind the label that does.

While the movie is still playing the Festival circuit, for those who are unable to attend a screening it is available on DVD from the film’s website which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating stories. Robert “The Mouth” bound to become a cultural icon if this gets any sort of distribution.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: And the Band Played On

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Ernest and Celestine