Early on in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” singer Patti Austin tells the story of how Fitzgerald — touring with a giant band within the 1930s and apparently the one one on the bus with no real interest in getting excessive — would sit within the again together with her coat over her head to behave as her “own personal filtration system.” That’s good for amusing, and it’s additionally good for a way of aid, in being reminded that this would be the uncommon movie a few 20th century jazz big that doesn’t have to fret about when to begin in on the tragic foreshadowing. Living to a ripe outdated age, on this style of documentary, isn’t just one of these issues.
It’s urged in director Leslie Woodhead’s movie that Fitzgerald lived a reasonably lonely life when she was off the highway — however it’s additionally emphasised that she was hardly ever ever off the highway, and saved no matter sorrows she might need felt largely to herself. That lack of apparent downfall or overt trauma doesn’t make for the best sense of narrative momentum in “Just One of Those Things.” But it does imply that Woodhead, both by design or course of of elimination, is compelled to shift focus to one thing which may get much less consideration in, say, a Billie Holiday documentary: music. There’s loads of it within the film, albeit in such quick bursts that it’s by no means as a lot as you’d like, which could possibly be good for an extended tail for her Verve Records catalog after the movie hits VOD on June 26.
Woodhead’s film is at its greatest in how neatly it delineates the completely different musical phases of Fitzgerald’s profession. First, she was a Harlem-based massive band singer who broke into the nationwide highlight within the ’30s and ’40s whereas nonetheless underneath the baton of an under-remembered mentor, band chief Chick Webb. Then, she was an enthusiastic and brilliantly gifted participant within the bop motion, heading out with smaller and wilder combos, improvising each bit as a lot because the sax or trumpet gamers did, to the purpose that her identify remains to be practically synonymous with scat singing. In a 3rd musical act, all that achieved vocal craziness bought smoothed out (however not fatally so) when one other benevolent mentor, Norman Granz, talked her into shifting to ballads and protecting the Great American Songbook, at a time when its pages had been nonetheless recent. Race relations had been hardly at a progressive state, because the movie reminds, however her collections of songs by Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, et al. had been virtually de rigueur companion items for each suburbanite’s first new hi-fi.
It’s arduous to not begin wishing this movie had been made 20 or 30 years in the past, when extra of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries would have been round to throw first-hand gentle on her influence. Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and a handful of different old-timers fleetingly flip up as speaking heads, however Woodhead properly provides extra weight than this stuff normally do to writers who’re eloquently capable of give verbiage to Fitzgerald’s vocal greatness, notably Margo Jefferson and Will Friedwald. The latter narrates a typical, offhandedly thrilling second within the singer’s mid-period profession when she scat-sang excerpts from 40 songs over the course of 5 fully spontaneous minutes throughout a present in Berlin. If you have got any doubts that Fitzgerald belongs within the firm of Parker and Monk as an improvising jazz nice on prime of the due she’s given as an Irving Berlin-loving balladeer, this sequence will just about settle that.
It’s naturally a bit more durable for the filmmaker to deliver Fitzgerald into focus as a character — and “Just One of Those Things” just isn’t very promising a subtitle for a film you’re hoping will set her out as something however common. Laine says she “never seemed to have a strong love life in her life” after an early marriage and divorce, and her adopted son, Ray Brown Jr., who has probably the most emotional on-camera moments, appears to substantiate that connection was a troublesome factor for his mom. A uncommon bit of Fitzgerald voiceover suggesting an innate loneliness with out a man in her life is laid in opposition to her recording of “A House is Not a Home.” The film crops the concept that, in touring for as much as 42 weeks a 12 months late into her life, she mated herself together with her adoring audiences, the best way Bob Dylan and so many highway canine earlier than and after her have. There’s some melancholia in that, however not sufficient to show the story of one of probably the most good singers of anybody’s lifetime right into a last-minute tragedy. A jazz film whose dominant mode — amid valiant efforts to mine some private sorrow — is precise musical pleasure? We’ll take it.