REVIEW: Ella Fitzgerald – Just One Of Those Things

Brian Butler June 6, 2020

Ella Fitzgerald’s true-life story is the stuff of Hollywood legend, so it’s surprising no-one’s gone there. This made-for-television bio pic is a straightforward look at her life and her music and pulls no punches.

The sudden death of her mother and the probable abuse by her father sends the teenage Ella off the rails and into Reform School, from which she escapes to the harsh streets of New York’s Harlem.

Turning up at the famous Apollo for a dance audition, she ends up singing instead and the rest is history. The programme follows her early years with her mentor the drummer/bandleader Chick Webb. His sudden death at 30 catapults her into running his band , and the first signs of her strong will, independence and God-given unique talent.

Much of the programme dwells on her voice as a musical instrument – her development of “scat” – the improvisation that uses the voice as if it were a trumpet or other instrument. One of the staggering examples is a concert in 1960 Berlin where she improvised “ How High The Moon “ and in 5 minutes incorporated excerpts from 40 songs and nursery rhymes !

Tributes abound in the film- from the likes of Cleo Laine, Tony Bennett and Jamie Cullum, but it’s the all-too-short singing extracts that are the joy.

From her stunning debut hit A Tisket A Tasket, we get Mack The Knife, The Lady Is A Tramp, Sweet Georgia Brown, A Foggy Day, Love For Sale, We’ll Take Manhattan and many many more.

A deeply driven but lonely person, she seems to put her whole philosophy into A House Is Not A Home.

In this current time of Black Lives Matter, it’s emphasised in the programme just how much racism and segregation she came up against , unable to be a customer in some of the better places she performed. When she wanted a house in LA her manager had to buy it for her in his name. It’s telling that her public condemnation of racism , in a radio interview , was never broadcast – her salient remark “ we’re all here “ having such resonance now.

She was sometimes shouted at after concerts for no good reason, held up at the airport and forced to give way to white people. She chose to face this racism discretely, with dignity. In 1968, she wrote and recorded a song for Pastor Martin Luther King, who had been murdered in April of the same year. Listen to it now:

Single-handedly she put the Great American Songbook on top, where it remains today. “ If I couldn’t sing, I don’t know what I would do” she tells us. Thank God for her extraordinary gift which we can still enjoy today.

You can catch the film on BBC iplayer until May 2021.