Featuring interviews with her son Ray Brown Jr., Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett, and more, the documentary may present itself as a basic, by-the-books narrative of an artist’s life, beginning with her turbulent upbringing, to her discovery and success, and her eventual fading health. However, it is in this simplicity that the film feels most honest and adoring, letting the power of her narrative speak for itself.
We begin with her early life and the journey her family took from Virginia to New York to escape the predominant racist attitudes of the south in what is known historically as the Great Migration. In her youth she found music and danced on street corners for nickels, lost her mom at age 13, and eventually found herself in a reformatory school where she spent time in solitary confinement for being “ungovernable”. But then her life changed on November 21, 1934 when she performed on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater and was discovered by band lead Chick Webb, and we see how the rest becomes history… but not quite so easily.
This film’s greatest accomplishment is how it draws up and makes us understand the pain and frustration that Ella faced working in an industry where it was hard enough being Black, and success for a Black woman was almost impossible. We see that even when Chick Webb was left stunned by her voice, her gender was an immediate obstacle as there was a fear that she would tempt his all-male band. And throughout her entire career, she struggled with not fitting the general expectation of “glamour” – it would take another 30 years for her to be discovered by Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and then to really be seen by mainstream, white audiences.
Nevertheless she persevered, as the story goes for so many successful women, and she fought her way through endless hurdles her entire life. Not only could she sing, but she had a mind for improvisation and her voice was utilized as its own section of the band, holding up and continuously adapting with the evolving melodies on stage. She could make her way through songs without knowing the lyrics, and could melodically blend references to nursery rhymes and other classic songs to create something uniquely her own, very much in the way that you see hip hop artists freestyle today. She was a trailblazer in every facet of her life and career.
On June 15, 1996, Ella Fitzgerald died at the age of 79 and the music industry lost one of its most unique talents. At the end of this documentary, you must stick around for the filmmakers to present the documentary’s most extraordinary moment. We see a young singer by the name of Alexis Morrast take the stage of the Apollo Theater on Amateur Night, just as Ella did 86 years ago, with a voice to match the legendary singer. It is a moment that conflicts with the idea that Ella was a “freak of nature,” as she is lovingly described in the film. An extraordinary talent, yes, but the film ends with a lesson that legends may pass, but we must still look ahead to the future and appreciate the talent that is in front of us now. When you think about Ella’s journey to stardom, and the hardships she has faced, you can’t help but wonder how many of equal or greater talent are out there, but unable to find the opportunities to make it to the spotlight as she did.
Enjoy ELLA FITZGERALD: JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS in our Virtual Movie Palace this week, and if you find yourself looking for more music documentaries similar to its nature, you can still view MAMA AFRICA in our Virtual Movie Palace, and WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? available now on Netflix.