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

Fantasia 2000


Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 is a whale of a movie

(1999) Animated Feature (Disney) Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Penn Jilette, Teller, Quincy Jones, Leopold Stokowsky, Itzhak Perlman, James Levine, Ralph Grierson, Kathleen Battle, Wayne Allwine (voice), Tony Anselmo (voice), Russi Taylor (voice). Directed by Various

 

One of Hollywood’s major curses is that it regularly seeks to improve upon a revered original. All of us can name at least one ill-advised remake, an update that litters the bowels of the septic tank of celluloid failure.

Wisely, the animators at Disney taking on the concept of Fantasia 2000 realized that they didn’t have to improve on the original so much as measure up to it. The original 1940 Fantasia is as highbrow as animation gets; it was (and is today) to standard animation features as going to an art museum is to attending a wrestling match. The same comparison can be made for the new opus.

Returning only the beloved “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from the original (the one wherein Mickey Mouse enchants a broomstick to carry his water for him), Fantasia 2000 adds eight new sequences ranging from the simplistic geometric animation of the opening “Beethoven’s Fifth” sequence to the intricate storytelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The animation here holds up well to the original. Check out the self-satisfied smirks on the pink flamingos in Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals,” which asks the age-old question “What would happen if you gave a pink flamingo a yo-yo?” (it is also the most charming and shortest of the sequences here). Check also the looks of parental concern on the whales in the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” (by Respighi) sequence. This particular part is breathtaking in its imagination, having majestic humpback whales float in the air as serenely as they plow through the water, but the world of these whales is not necessarily what it seems; the sequence’s end is a delightful lesson in perspective.

Another favorite sequence is set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” done in the linear style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. It depicts a depression-era New York City in which a construction worker dreams of being a jazz drummer, an unemployed man dreams of getting a job, a henpecked man dreams of being able to let the child in him go free and a little girl dreams of more attention from her parents. In this idealized Big Apple, dreams come true amid the glitter of the lights of Broadway.

Another sure-to-be fave is Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (yes, the graduation theme for every high school ever) which stars Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant in loading up the Ark in preparation for the flood. Donald is separated from his beloved Daisy during the frenzied boarding; each believes the other left behind. While Donald puts out various fires in his capacity as assistant (the woodpeckers within are more dangerous than the storm without) Daisy pines at the railing of the mighty ark. They are reunited as the animals disembark in a particularly poignant moment. The movie closes with Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which portrays an anime-style nymph battling a volcano-spawned firebird.

Each sequence is introduced by a celebrity host (Steve Martin, James Earl Jones and Penn and Teller are all particularly delightful). The animation here is superb; I was fortunate enough to see it in IMAX when it was first released to theaters and it made quite the impression on me. The re-mastered “Sorcerer’s Appearance” works seamlessly with the other sequences.

This is probably a bit too long-winded for smaller kids, which is true of the original “Fantasia.” As a work of art, it’s magnificent. As entertainment, it requires patience and imagination, something for which the American movie-going public is not noted. Still, for the smart gals and fellers reading this, it is without-question a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the most gorgeous animation you’re likely to see. Intelligent and delightful melding of classical music and animation fit for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Children might find it tedious as it is a series of vignettes with almost no dialogue.

FAMILY MATTERS: Absolutely fit for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Officially released just after midnight December 31, 1999 making it the first movie to be released in the new millennium.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The original Fantasia is included in both the original 2000 DVD release and the 2010 Blu-Ray release. There are also a couple of animated shorts from the 1950s related to musical composition. In addition on the Blu-Ray edition there is a piece on a projected collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney that never came to fruition, although about six minutes of footage exists (shown here, along with the nearly hour long featurette concerning the piece). The Blu-Ray also has a couple of features on the new Disney Family Museum in the old army Presidio in San Francisco (well worth visiting if you are ever in the area – Da Queen and I did just that earlier this year).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.9M on an $80M production budget; like it’s predecessor, Fantasia 2000 failed to make back it’s production and marketing costs at the boxoffice.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Hugo