Watching Ella Fitzgerald insist upon making her way from the streets of Harlem—and insist she does—to an outcome that anyone else would have thought beyond her means or talents, makes the Leslie Woodhead documentary Just One of Those Things a quest narrative to fire up a Greek bard. Fitzgerald’s summation of what she did and what in turn made her everything she was, is contained in three words we hear early in the film. “I kept on,” she says, and she might as well be the sun speaking.
The film charts her career and her evolution, the latter being especially relevant. We see Smokey Robinson, whose face is always lit up anyway, light up even further when he describes first hearing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The upper-register singing—the girlish glee and easy swing—must have opened up worlds of possibility. Cut to Fitzgerald in archival footage describing her early voice as thin and small. But, as she said, she figured that out. As she progressed, others got what they needed from her various steps and stages.
The chunky, hard-luck girl—who had experienced the death of her mother at 16, homelessness, an abusive stepfather, solitary confinement in an institution—wanted to be a dancer. It’s a key thesis of the film, the connection between Fitzgerald’s mature singing style and dance, as if she inhaled the possibilities of both ballet and rug-cutting and gave them life and voice as sung notes. With the advent of bebop, America was naturally blown away by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but that a human could use her voice as they used their horns—perhaps with even greater freedom—seemed almost post-human, unthinkable. And yet, there Fitzgerald was.
The performance clips put you on stage with her, closer than first-row close, which is handy, because there’s an initial disconnect between your eyes and your brain that this person is producing this much sound, that a voice can be this nimble.
Bop, as the film argues, is what took Fitzgerald—or what allowed Fitzgerald to take herself—from the making of hits to the making of Modernism, without forfeiting the hits in the process. She palled around with Gillespie on two tours, absorbing and re-positing. A musician blues the notes; Fitzgerald seems to Ella-ize everything, force-of-nature style. And the more artistic success she had, the more complete she wanted to be as a singer.
A lot is made of her appearance at the Apollo on amateur night, having never sung in public before. The plan was to dance, but watching an act in front of her, she realized she wasn’t good enough. Enter, then, perhaps the greatest pivot in American music history. “She shut us up so quick you could hear a mouse piss on cotton,” the dancer Norma Miller remarks. That’s some serious shutting up from an artist whose talent seemed to open continually. Keeping on, as it were.