Early on in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” singer Patti Austin tells the story of how Fitzgerald — traveling with a big band in the 1930s and apparently the only one on the bus with no interest in getting high — would sit in the back with her coat over her head to act as her “own personal filtration system.” That’s good for a laugh, and it’s also good for a sense of relief, in being reminded that this will be the rare film about a 20th century jazz giant that doesn’t have to worry about when to start in on the tragic foreshadowing. Living to a ripe old age, in this genre of documentary, is not just one of those things.
It’s suggested in director Leslie Woodhead’s film that Fitzgerald lived a fairly lonely life when she was off the road — but it’s also emphasized that she was rarely ever off the road, and kept whatever sorrows she might have felt largely to herself. That lack of obvious downfall or overt trauma doesn’t make for the greatest sense of narrative momentum in “Just One of Those Things.” But it does mean that Woodhead, either by design or process of elimination, is compelled to shift focus to something that might get less attention in, say, a Billie Holiday documentary: music. There’s a lot of it in the movie, albeit in such short bursts that it’s never as much as you’d like, which could be good for a long tail for her Verve Records catalog after the film hits VOD on June 26.
Woodhead’s movie is at its best in how neatly it delineates the different musical phases of Fitzgerald’s career. First, she was a Harlem-based big band singer who broke into the national spotlight in the ’30s and ’40s while still under the baton of an under-remembered mentor, band leader Chick Webb. Then, she was an enthusiastic and brilliantly gifted participant in the bop movement, heading out with smaller and wilder combos, improvising every bit as much as the sax or trumpet players did, to the point that her name is still nearly synonymous with scat singing. In a third musical act, all that accomplished vocal craziness got smoothed out (but not fatally so) when another benevolent mentor, Norman Granz, talked her into shifting to ballads and covering the Great American Songbook, at a time when its pages were still fresh. Race relations were hardly at a progressive state, as the film reminds, but her collections of songs by Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, et al. were practically de rigueur companion pieces for every suburbanite’s first new hi-fi.
It’s hard not to start wishing this film had been made 20 or 30 years ago, when more of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries would have been around to throw first-hand light on her impact. Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and a handful of other old-timers fleetingly turn up as talking heads, but Woodhead wisely gives more weight than these things usually do to writers who are eloquently able to give verbiage to Fitzgerald’s vocal greatness, notably Margo Jefferson and Will Friedwald. The latter narrates a typical, offhandedly thrilling moment in the singer’s mid-period career when she scat-sang excerpts from 40 songs over the course of five completely spontaneous minutes during a show in Berlin. If you have any doubts that Fitzgerald belongs in the company of Parker and Monk as an improvising jazz great on top of the due she’s given as an Irving Berlin-loving balladeer, this sequence will pretty much settle that.
It’s naturally a bit tougher for the filmmaker to bring Fitzgerald into focus as a personality — and “Just One of Those Things” is not very promising a subtitle for a movie you’re hoping will set her out as anything but average. Laine says she “never seemed to have a strong love life in her life” after an early marriage and divorce, and her adopted son, Ray Brown Jr., who has the most emotional on-camera moments, seems to confirm that connection was a tough thing for his mother. A rare bit of Fitzgerald voiceover suggesting an innate loneliness without a man in her life is laid against her recording of “A House is Not a Home.” The movie plants the idea that, in touring for up to 42 weeks a year late into her life, she mated herself with her adoring audiences, the way Bob Dylan and so many road dogs before and after her have. There’s some melancholia in that, but not enough to turn the story of one of the most brilliant singers of anyone’s lifetime into a last-minute tragedy. A jazz movie whose dominant mode — amid valiant efforts to mine some personal sorrow — is actual musical joy? We’ll take it.