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Ella Fitzgerald: the lonely life behind the great jazz voice

Arts Review2020-7-10By: Marc Glassman

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things

Leslie Woodhead, director of this feature documentary

With: Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Brown, Jr., Margo Jefferson, Will Friedwald, Tony Bennett, Norma Miller, Jamie Cullum, Laura Mvula

Available through Hot Docs.

In Leslie Woodhead’s respectful if conventionally made bio-documentary on the iconic jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, there’s a sequence where music critic and historian Will Friedland describes the songs she’s referencing in a scat laden section of “How High the Moon.” In five wordless minutes impeccably sung, Fitzgerald vocalizes parts of “Stormy Weather, Did You Ever See a Dream Walking, The Peanut Vendor, Deep Purple, A Tisket A Tasket, Heat Wave, I Cover the Waterfront, Hawaiian War Chant and The Irish Washerwoman.” It’s a bravura performance, sung live in Berlin in 1960, which is followed by her famous version of “Mack The Knife”—based on the Weill/Brecht “Moritat von Mackie Messer”—in which she forgets the lyrics halfway through and spontaneously sings why she sang the song and how much she’s enjoying doing it anyway. When critics talk about certain jazz singers being musically on par with the great instrumentalists, surely they’re placing Ella Fitzgerald among the absolute best.

Woodhead does a fine job of dividing Fitzgerald’s life into sections covering her impoverished childhood, rise to fame as a teenaged singing sensation with drummer Chick Webb’s swing band, maturation as a bop singer and peak period as the singer of a series of Great American Songbook (Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, etc.) albums, which established the canon of peerless Broadway and nightclub composers and her as the best interpreter of their lyrics and music. Woodhead goes into her private life: her marriage to bassist Ray Brown, their adoption of Ray, Jr., who is a vocalist and drummer, her divorce from Brown (though they continued to work together) and her endless road tours. It was a lonely life but she always had her fans, who adored her.

Woodhead buttresses his portrait of Fitzgerald with clips of her performing live—sadly, they’re often too brief–, tributes by old musical friends like Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis, interviews with Ray Brown, Jr. and accolades by contemporary British jazz acolytes as Jamie Cullum and Laura Mvula. Without getting too deep into Ella, who admittedly didn’t share many intimate moments with people, Woodhead has crafted a film that tells the Fitzgerald story in a clear style that newcomers will learn from and old jazz hands will enjoy.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean

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