New Ella Fitzgerald doc focuses on the joy of music

Joel Oliphint
Ella Fitzgerald

The new documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” focuses almost exclusively on the music made by the beloved Queen of Jazz. Which may seem obvious, but often, in films about musicians, the music plays second fiddle to the artist’s struggles.

“People are not interested in what people do. They're interested in the difficulties of life. They want a Nina Simone or a Billie Holiday, both of whom are fantastic performers. But for me, the music is everything,” said Reggie Nadelson, a lifelong Fitzgerald fan who produced “Just One of Those Things” and conducted most of the interviews in the film. “I think the music is what really matters, but the broadcasters really don't want that. They want to know what was her life as a woman, what were her emotional hardships. I think joy is more interesting than hardship, but I'm in a minority.”

“It was interesting, of course, to find out a bit about Ella and try to untangle what her life was like,” Nadelson continued. “I didn't know much about her early life and how miserable it was, because Ella was very reserved. She never talked about it. As someone said, Billie Holiday wore her misery on her sleeve and Ella turned hers into joy.”

The documentary opens tomorrow (Friday, June 26) via virtual screenings through the Wexner Center and the Drexel Theatre and features interviews with Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett and Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown, Jr. Nadelson leads viewers through the distinct periods of Fitzgerald’s career, beginning when the teenage singer made her 1934 debut at amateur night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. From there, her remarkable voice and a willingness to change with the times carried her to prominence singing novelty songs, swing, bebop and the Great American Songbook.

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“It really proves what a brilliant musician she was. And of course she had no training. She never had sung before. She didn't sing in church like Aretha Franklin,” Nadelson said. “People like Charlie Parker said she had an instrument as good as theirs.”

Some of the most incredible footage and audio from the documentary feature Fitzgerald’s scat singing, particularly during a live, five-minute performance of “How High the Moon.” And while tracking down footage was a challenge (especially in the early days of her career), the cost associated with some of it was even more of an issue. “It's phenomenally expensive,” Nadelson said. “Thirty seconds can cost you $5,000.”

Nadelson, who also writes a column for the New York Times and has authored a series of crime novels, didn’t anticipate having to release the film during a pandemic, which relegates the documentary (and a free, live conversation on Sunday night) to home screens instead of movie theaters. But she's not bent out of shape about it.

“There are worse things happening — much worse. So you don't really think about it,” she said. “I don't think we can feel too sorry for ourselves.”

"Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things"

Virtual screenings begin Friday, June 26

Wexner Center

Drexel Theatre