Available on iPlayer for another four days, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is a 2019 documentary about a woman with considerably better timing than us.
Leslie Woodhead’s film charts Fitzgerald’s musical evolution from her novelty swing-era hits with the Chick Webb Orchestra to making the American Songbook Great again alongside producer Norman Granz, via single-handedly expanding the vocabulary of jazz vocals during the bebop revolution. Her vocal acrobatics are compared to the virtuoso instrumental solos of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, quoting as many as 40 different songs in a single 5-minute performance.
Through talking heads, exhaustive photos and magical performances, Just One of Those Things paints Fitzgerald as an unlikely star whose crowd-pulling profile was rare for a woman in the 1930s and unheard of for a black woman. 99-year-old former dancer Norma Miller describes seeing the first performance of a shabby teenager who would ultimately help establish an American classical music with her interpretations of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. Along the way we hear fantastic anecdotes involving Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso and superfan Marilyn Monroe.
Contrary to the prurience of current release Billie, the movie understands that fans want to see their icons celebrated and that if a subject is interesting enough to warrant a documentary then all you need to do is tell their story with clarity and without trying to be edgy. It discusses the struggles the Harlem-raised singer faced as a result of poverty, loss and segregation without dwelling on those hardships, keeping the focus on the music and entitling the artist to a private life.
Proving you don’t need to be an Aretha Franklin documentary to show a little respect, this is an affectionate and well-crafted profile of a singer so good she won Grammys even when she forgot the words.