Ella Fitzgerald adored her mother. When the famed singer was 13 she lost her father, which caused behavior problems and Fitzgerald was sent to reform school where she was beaten and put into solitary confinement.
Fitzgerald was homeless and danced on the New York City streets for whatever she could. Just by chance, she went into The Apollo and was brought onto the stage in a soiled dress. The audience laughed and heckled her.
Fitzgerald resolved to try again. At once, The Apollo audience loved her. In a new documentary “Just One of Those Things” by Leslie Woodhead, Fitzgerald looks like a sensuous flower floating in a sea of red velvet about to sing. Though the film is somewhat pedestrian, it is peppered with lively interviews by Tony Bennett and the star’s self-deprecating son Ray Brown, Jr.
Fitzgerald got into the genre of Swing and under the drummer Chick Webb, achieved fame with the bouncy “A Tisket-A-Tasket.” Fitzgerald appeared in the film, “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” (1942). Soon she was exposed to the genre of scat, the vocal equivalent to abstract expressionist painting and thrilled audiences.
Ella became more popular, but she still could not perform in many expensive clubs. Marilyn Monroe vowed to support her, challenging segregation, and as a result more stages opened.
The most interesting section of the film relates the story of Fitzgerald’s son Ray. Though he was isolated from his mother, he clearly loves her and the interviews are the most moving segments along with the stories of segregation.
Though Fitzgerald was said to be notoriously shy (she was known to hide under her coat during parties involving drugs) she spoke up against racism and violence during the 1960s. After the interviewer said that the singer’s comments would be heard worldwide, the interview was never broadcast.
Though teased because of race and her weight, Fitzgerald met manager Norman Granz, founder of Verve Records. Granz helped turn her into an icon by securing her a contract with the Great American Songbook, singing favorites by Porter and Gershwin among others.
Fitzgerald sang for over sixty years and never stopped.
In addition to her son, another highlight of the film shows sixteen year old singer Alexis Morrast taking the stage at the Apollo in the same way Fitzgerald had, now 84 years later. Her spirit lives on.
“Just One of Those Things” is a fine primer for anyone interested in Ella Fitzgerald.
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org