“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” salutes the singer who became known as the first lady of song — whose six-decade career stretched from the comforts of novelty tunes to the cutting edge of jazz — with a PBS-ready treatment. It proceeds dryly and largely chronologically through her life, sometimes with an awkward sense of proportion. (Is it necessary for a full closing title card to note that Fitzgerald, who died in 1996, had both legs amputated toward the end of her life?)
The best moments concern the music. The dancer Norma Miller, who died last year, recalls seeing Fitzgerald’s star-making debut at amateur night at the Apollo Theater: Her introduction drew boos, but she silenced the audience quickly. The British singer Laura Mvula marvels that Fitzgerald “could solo using her voice to the same level, with the same ease that a trumpeter or a saxophonist could.” Noting that Fitzgerald’s improvisations always stayed harmonically sound, the music writer Will Friedwald recites a lengthy list of songs she incorporated during a five-minute scat version of “How High the Moon.” “What kind of a catalog do you have in your head to be able to do that?” he asks in amazement.
But analysis like that is mostly the exception, as are instances when the documentary, directed by Leslie Woodhead, allows the music a moment to sink in. We do hear Fitzgerald speak out against racism in a radio interview that the movie implies was withheld from broadcast. But this rote biographical portrait never lives up to her voice.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.
The celebrated jazz and scat singer Ella Fitzgerald is the subject of “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” a suitably affectionate documentary portrait that walks us through her life and career, from her first appearance, as a skinny, nervous teen, on the stage of the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night, to her death in 1996 at 79 (two years after having both of her legs amputated because of diabetes). In between, the film hits all the expected notes, including anecdotes about her mentor and early bandleader Chick Webb, her two marriages, public criticism about her weight and struggles with racism in the 1950s and early 1960s. (In a 1963 radio interview with Fred Robins, never broadcast, she speaks about the importance of the civil rights movement, a rare moment for an artist who didn’t like to get political.) But the film’s most satisfying passages are when the talking heads shut up for a moment and let us listen to Fitzgerald, who, in the words of The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington, “almost single-handedly elevated the American popular song to the status of art in the tradition of Italian bel canto and German lieder.” Unrated. Available June 26 at theavalon.org, afisilver.afi.com, themiracletheatre.comand cinemaartstheatre.com. Contains brief rude language. 89 minutes.
It takes 15 minutes or so for “No Small Matter” to get going. In that time, the documentary about the importance of early-childhood education issues an ominous warning about “an enemy that most of us don’t know to fight,” while making us wait to find out who or what that enemy is. But when the film’s core message finally kicks in — that investment in high-quality child care, good, well-paid teachers and the strong social support systems needed to help parents start their kids off on the right foot — it comes across loud, clear and convincing. Lucid, well-argued and urgent, this is a film that everyone who cares about the future of our country should consider seeing, especially people with kids or those who are thinking about having them. “No Small Matter” earns its title: If we want to transform future generations of Americans, we have to start with today’s moms and dads, and give them tools they need to build a better baby. Unrated.