Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things: Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, aka her biggest fan, take a fabulous fling.
In one seemingly simple sentence, musician Laura Mvula concisely sums up the everlasting appeal of Ella Fitzgerald: “She made it seem like anything is possible.” (It’s likely that at one point or another, generally in the shower, we’ve all tried to mimic Ella’s sprightly free improvisation — usually with disastrous results.) Her music has been a constant in my life, and Leslie Woodhead’s Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things serves as a fine introductory course on all things Ella.
I am from the generation of working class families that hired African-American “cleaning ladies” to come in and help with light housework. Once a week, Iona would appear at our apartment, bucket in hand. Sometimes, she’d be accompanied by her youngest son Henderson, and together we’d shoot marbles or watch The 3 Stooges. The radio was always on when Iona was in the house. Not yet kindergarten age, it was the first time I recall hearing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” or “The Basket Song,” as it came to be known on Thorndale Ave. For weeks after, it became a Thursday afternoon standard. Iona’s rendition rivaled Ella’s.
Ella arrived in Harlem just in time to help lead the Black Renaissance and eventually dethrone Louis Armstrong as America’s top scat singer. In her youth, Ella was billed as the “greatest little dancer in Harlem,” but that all changed that fateful night she took to the stage. Norma Miller was in the audience the night Fitzgerald made her debut at the Apollo Theatre, and she laughs at the memory of booing the then-unknown performer. She also recalls that the moment Fitzgerald opened her mouth to sing, the boos were replaced with a silence “so quiet you could hear a rat piss on cotton.”
Bandleader Chick Webb thought it unwise to stick Ella on a tour bus alongside six horny musicians. She had already endured countless jokes about her size and not being glamorous enough to front a jazz band. Webb was hardly one to poke fun at someone else’s physical appearance, but the dwarf with the tubercular spine sized her up and had the audacity to gibe, “I don’t want to take that ugly thing on the road with us.” Webb didn’t live past 30. Much to the disdain of her bandmates, it was Ella’s name that replaced Webb’s on the bandstand.
From swing, to novelty recordings, to Be-Bop and beyond, Ella made a career out of reinventing herself. Jazz impresario Norman Granz created the Verve label in her honor. But her biggest cheerleader proved to be showbiz legend Marilyn Monroe, who paid regular visits to the Apollo. According to Ella, thanks to Marilyn, she “never had to play a small jazz club again.” It also opened the door to the Songbook series, the most popular (and profitable) undertaking in her career. Take it from this rusty Casanova: there is no better singer — not Sinatra, not Tony Bennett, not Peggy Lee — to make out to than Ella Fitzgerald.
Ella was confronted by the evils of racism firsthand. She was allowed to live in Beverly Hills, but only when Granz’s name was on the lease. Never one to mix politics with pleasure, she only once publicly voiced her thoughts on the subject; the radio interview never aired. (Pieces are included in the film.) Divorced and never remarried, Ella was one of the hardest working performers in showbiz, living life out of a suitcase for weeks out of the year. Her adopted son Ray Brown, Jr. shows up, but has little insight to offer as to why he and his mother spent a decade estranged.
One wishes there were more clips of Ella performing — perhaps securing the rights proved too costly. (Two of her most famous achievements — the collaborations with Louis Armstrong and her glass-shattering ads for Memorex tapes — go unmentioned.) And at 90 minutes, it sometimes feels more like a checklist of career highs instead of a comprehensive biodoc. ★★★
Download it tonight at the Digital Gym Virtual Cinema.
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
I Am Vengeance: Retaliation — The review should have been filed last week when the film debuted, but after learning it was a sequel — and given my anal-retentive bent — a look at the original was crucial. Pro-wrestler-turned-marquee-aspirant Stu Bennett’s gamble paid off with this followup to director Ross Boyask’s British thriller. (British thriller? How’s that for an oxymoron?) True to form, Bennett enters swinging, landing more punches than bullets. And instead of following the standard “avenge the death of a friend” plotline, this time, Boyask opts to follow an equally conventional “capture the bad guy and transport him to prison” thread. The action never stops, but what makes this sequel superior (though not by much) is Boyask’s emphasis on humor — and the addition of legitimate action star Vinny Jones to lend credence. Boyask doesn’t direct as much as he pauses the action long enough to move things to another part of the set, where the fisticuffs continue. For those in the mood to watch people get pummeled for 90 minutes, you could do a lot worse. 2020 —S.M. ★
Irresistible — A big time political strategist (Steve Carell), still stinging from Mrs. Clinton’s loss, spends the summer in South Carolina, helping to turn a retired veteran (Chris Cooper) into the Democatic mayor of a small conservative town. If you’re determined to pattern a Red State/Blue State variation on Frank Capra, there aren’t too many actors out there better suited to assume the Jimmy Stewart role than Cooper. But director Jon Stewart shifts the focus from Mr. Smith to Carell’s variation on Boss Jim Taylor, with Rose Byrne in the Jean Arthur role. The ending is nothing short of ingenious; be sure to stick around during the closing credits, wherein campaign finance expert Trevor Potter validates Stewart’s brilliance. But the level of the banter exchanged between Carell and Byrne seldom rises above that of penis jokes, making many of their exchanges easy to resist. The star of the show is Mackenzie Davis as Cooper’s clear-thinking daughter; let’s hope she can live long enough off the interest of her Terminator earnings to keep energizing low-budget films with her formidable presence. 2020. —S.M. ★★
Tommaso — With six years sobriety in tow, Abel Ferrara awards himself with an autobiographical AA coin of a movie. His sixth collaboration with Willem Dafoe, this is a typical family affair for the controversial filmmaker. Filmed in the director’s apartment in Rome, Dafoe stars opposite Ferrara’s wife (Cristina Chiriac) and three-year-old daughter (Anna Ferrara). But this is not a film like This Is Not a Film, which was shot in Jafar Panahi’s home while the director was under house arrest by the Iranian government. Self-indulgent? Of course. Overlong? Yes, but not agonizingly so. And Ferrara may have kicked the drug habit, but the same can’t be said of his fetishistic practice of mentally undressing practically every beautiful young actress on the call sheet. (There must be a better way of illustrating the perks of a job.) Dafoe is a superlative Ferrara substitute, but if you’re looking to find the two in top form, a download of Pasolini is in order. When this one was over, I turned to my viewing companion and sighed, “It’s not much of a step forward from Dangerous Game,” to which he unkindly replied, “I liked Ferrara better when he was high.” 2019. —S.M. ★★