The 400-Word Review - Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
By Sean Collier
June 27, 2020
The traditional music documentary is a sturdy format. The proliferation of quick-hit career recaps in the ’90s — where have you gone, “Behind the Music” — made producers eager for different approaches, and some have worked; the live storytelling format of “Beastie Boys Story” earlier this year was a winner. There’s nothing at all wrong, however, with a contextualized, historic look at an important figure.
Such tales are often as good as their subject. Fortunately, few figures are more important — not just to popular music, nor merely to American music — as Ella Fitzgerald, the trailblazing and multifaceted singer who charted a novel course through the culture of the 20th century. In “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” novices and fans alike will have plenty to learn.
The circumstances of Fitzgerald’s life range from homeless teen to global icon, and all are covered in this pleasant documentary by Leslie Woodhead. Woodhead isn’t turning to music for the first time — she looked at the Fab Four and the USSR with “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” — but much of her directorial efforts have been more somber, including television docs on the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana. As such, she seems reluctant to let the music speak for itself; even when Ella really gets going, she’s often interrupted by talking heads.
That stumble is only an occasional distraction — and to be fair to those who interrupt the First Lady of Song, there’s plenty to cover. Fitzgerald’s life seems too remarkable to be non-fiction; consider that her career as a singer began when she tentatively wandered onto the stage at the Apollo Theater’s first-ever amateur night.
And she wasn’t there to sing. She intended to dance, but the preceding act danced, so she pivoted.
Woodhead teases out a few of Fitzgerald’s historical contributions along with the biography. You may be familiar with the singer’s skill with scat singing; after a viewing of “Just One of Those Things,” you’ll understand what a remarkable and virtuosic proficiency Fitzgerald developed with that method, fully inventing a new and formidable implement in the jazz toolbox. The assembled experts also credit Fitzgerald with making the Great American Songbook into the accepted canon.
Lady Ella’s life is captivating without much adornment, and “Just One of Those Things” wisely doesn’t complicate things. It has few tricks up its sleeve, but its subject requires none.
My Rating: 7/10
“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” is available via digital on-demand services.