Some people are just born with a gift. And that’s especially true when it comes to music.
Ella Fitzgerald was such a person, and the new documentary, “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” shows just how remarkable the singer’s rise was during the Jim Crow era in America.
Her mother died when she was just 13, and she ended up in a home for juvenile delinquents for a while, before escaping to the streets and showing up at the age of 15 for the first amateur night held at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre in 1934.
It was during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, with the music of Duke Ellington and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong dominating the airwaves. And it was clear that the sublime voice of Fitzgerald was perfect for expressing their music.
But she was much more than that. She helped immortalize the Great American Songbook — the music of composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and others.
The first few years of her career were spent with Chick Webb’s band, which was a regular at the Apollo. She had her first hit in the mid-30s with the upbeat “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” then went through various musical phases, which showed off her remarkable ability to scat — just as good if not better than Satchmo.
But when Webb died in 1939, Fitzgerald started her own orchestra and hit the road, becoming known as the “first lady of song.” A few years later, she left the band and started her solo career in 1942, eventually working with Norman Granz, who founded Verve Records.
Granz took her on a tour of Europe, and afterward, touring consumed most of professional life. But being on the road took its toll, leading to her divorce from Ray Brown in 1955. (Brown was a jazz bassist in the Fitzgerald band when they married in 1947.)
As the documentary notes, Fitzgerald was not as easy to sell as someone so sleek and beautiful as Lena Horne. Fitzgerald was what they called hefty. But her voice and its suitability to jazz were undeniable.
Granz eventually bought Fitzgerald a house in Beverly Hills, Calif., since a Black woman couldn’t buy one there at the time. And most club owners in Southern California didn’t want to book a Black woman back in the 1950s. But that changed when one of the most glamorous women in the world, Marilyn Monroe, promised to show up — in person — if club owners would book Fitzgerald.
Various people who worked with Fitzgerald pop up throughout the documentary to discuss how Fitzgerald used her music to escape from poverty and racism. Those who sing her praises include such friends as Tony Bennett, dancer Norma Miller and Smokey Robinson, who has a bit to say about being a Black performer in 20th-century America.
British actress/singer Sharon D. Clarke narrates the documentary and also provides personal insights. But the most touching commentary is provided by Fitzgerald’s only son, Ray Brown Jr.
Leslie Woodhead, a longtime award-winning TV documentarian, directs the film. Her previous documentary, 2017’s “Diana: The Day Britain Cried,” was narrated by Kate Winslet.
“Just One of Those Things” is streaming at the Austin Film Society’s website, austinfilm.org.
‘Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things’
Running time: 89 minutes
Directed by Leslie Woodhead