In 1934, Norma Miller was one of the rowdy teenagers in the balcony of Harlem’s Apollo Theater who booed an aspiring performer named Ella Fitzgerald on Amateur Night as she took the stage. But when the 17-year-old began to sing and, as Miller recalls in this new documentary, her voice immediately silenced the catcalls and soon the hall fell silent enough “to hear a mouse piss on cotton.”
Miller is one of the many remarkable interviews included in this compact new 90-minute biography of America’s most beloved jazz singer. It traces Fitzgerald’s life and career from that first appearance to her final years in a largely chronological journey (with one generous flashback to fill in her tumultuous childhood), and unless you’re an Ella scholar, you’ll be surprised at how many things you didn’t know.
That said, Fitzgerald’s life — once her career took off — was remarkably free of the dramas of tragic romance, substance abuse or other gossip-worthy twists that often plague famous performers. So director Leslie Woodhead keeps things interesting with performance snippets, previously unseen footage and a remarkable roster of worshipful experts, including Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Laura Mvula, Johnny Mathis and many others. Fitzgerald’s only child, Ray Brown Jr., also gives Woodhead a thoughtful and touching interview.
Just One of Those Things is not a flashy film, and it sometimes buries important facts in subtitles that should have been included in Sharon D. Clarke’s voiceover narration. It also might have benefited from allowing a couple of performances to run longer. But the film achieves its goal of putting Fitzgerald’s career in cultural and historical context — she thrived during the tumult of the civil rights era — so there’s plenty of Ella here for any fan to enjoy and be awestruck anew.
Available to rent starting June 26 via grailmoviehouse.com