Film Reviews

New Ella Fitzgerald Doc Celebrates Black Excellence

‘Just One of Those Things’ explores the life and music of an American icon

Photo courtesy Herman Leonard Photography LLC


Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Leslie Woodhead

Ella Fitzgerald’s soothing ditties never fail to raise one’s spirits. Her sturdy voice and upbeat tunes enliven Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things. This film is cut from the same cloth as many other celebratory music docs that are cut and paced for television. While Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things treads the cradle to crave formula for biographical filmmaking, the music it celebrates is too toe-tappingly good to resist with staples like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” peppering the soundtrack.

Director Leslie Woodhead moves relatively swiftly through Fitzgerald’s career by hitting all the high notes with a medley of new interviews, archival footage, and photographs – some of which are fantastically sweaty. Just One of Those Things outlines a troubled adolescence for Fitzgerald after her mother died when she was fifteen, but the golden nugget comes from dancer Nancy Miller in the film’s opening number. Miller laughs while recalling an amateur night recital in which a sixteen-year-old girl named Ella Fitzgerald appeared before the packed audience the Apollo Theatre. They booed her. Miller, easily the most entertaining of the film’s interviewees, laughs about how poorly she and the audience misjudged the young singer with the ratty dress.

This opening remark makes Ella Fitzgerald’s story worth revisiting, particularly when audiences are hungry to give the Ella Fitzgeralds of the future a platform, or reconsider all singers who never had the courage to take the stage after the crowd booed them. Or, more likely, lacked the opportunity to get their fair shot. The film arrives at just the right moment with a celebration of a Black American icon and her success in the face of both personal and systemic adversity.

Woodhead’s portrait of Fitzgerald is a story of a life well lived. There isn’t much in the way of drama—her tale doesn’t have the juicy vicissitudes of, say, Nina Simone story—but that doesn’t discount Fitzgerald’s struggles nor the significance of her music in the era that she performed it. Perhaps the significance of the film is its articulation of the everyday challenges of finding success while being Black in America. Just One of Those Things explores Fitzgerald’s rise to fame with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with narrator Sharon D. Clark’s remarks that the singer debuted at jazz clubs where she was welcome to attend as a performer, but not as a member of the all-white audience. The doc credits Marilyn Monroe’s love for Fitzgerald’s music for doing its part to boost Ella’s stock. By insisting on seeing Fitzgerald at the microphone and gladly attending her shows and drawing the interests of onlookers and reporters, the film illustrates how allies can become co-conspirator to assist in elevating talented performers.

Talking heads like pianist André Previn and singer Smokey Robinson unpack Fitzgerald’s style and significance in new interviews. Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown, Jr., speaks to her personal traits. He echoes many of the other speakers by noting that Fitzgerald lived a relatively quiet and private life off stage. While these interviews are not especially revealing, they speak to Fitzgerald’s legacy and influence with jazzy vigour.

The film finds some drama in one moment from Civil Rights Movement in which Fitzgerald and members of her crew were arrested in a blatant act of systemic racism when players in her band were caught shooting dice backstage. The sequence is bound to touch a nerve with audiences today, although it keeps the discussion relatively safe by limiting the episode to Fitzgerald’s biography. In an archival excerpt, she laughs that the cops arrested her but lobbied for her autographed after hauling her to jail.

Music fiends will appreciate the tangents in which the documentary unpacks Fitzgerald’s style. Some talking heads situate Fitzgerald’s bop and scat classes of jazz as elements as the mark of a true original in her field. Others groove enthusiastically at the sound of her voice as she riffs on notes like a pianist tickling the keys. One interviewee calls Fitzgerald’s intonations the highest power a voice can have. It’s hard to argue as the tunes flow freely on the soundtrack and envelope the viewer.

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is currently streaming via Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema