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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things

by director Leslie Woodhead

I see the Ella film as kind of Jazz Suite interweaving multiple themes and soloists. It traces the story of Ella’s life and its connections with the story of her times, the ways in which those stories influenced her music, and how her music became a soundtrack for a tumultuous century.

From a 1934 talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when a ragged street girl found her voice, the film follows her extraordinary journey across five decades as she reflects the passions and troubles of her times in her music and her life. Moving beyond conventional biopic, I use images and music to evoke the feel of those times to bring to life the context of Ella Fitzgerald’s unique career.

The film reveals an Ella the world never knew—thoughtful, tough, funny, a bold musical innovator engaged in the issues of her times and committed to struggles for civil rights. But we also explore the conflicts that haunted her to the end: the passion for singing, the hunger for adoring audiences that drove her on a programme of endless touring with her beloved musicians—pitched in an unresolvable struggle with her longing for a settled relationship and a domestic life with her adopted son. It was a struggle that left her, as her favourite pianist Oscar Peterson said “the loneliest woman in the world.”

The film is an interweaving of witnesses who knew and worked with Fitzgerald and rare archives illuminating the dramatic events that played out across her life. The memories of those witnesses, including her adopted son Ray Brown Jr. (interviewed at length for the first time), provide an intimate account of her usually hidden personal life. Home movies, unheard audio interviews and unseen photographs bring Ella into unique focus.

And always of course, Ella’s music. Through classic performances and rarely seen concerts, the film looks at the many phases of Fitzgerald’s musical life from Swing through Bebop to her sublime interpretations of the Great American Songbook, from little jazz clubs to concert halls with symphony orchestras.

A central character in the film is the Promoter and Producer Norman Granz who took Jazz into international concert halls and shaped Ella’s career for more than 30 years. We look at Granz’s passionate campaign to use Jazz to challenge racism and prejudice and how his abrasive style introduced Ella to new audiences around the world. Ella’s son described Granz’s intense relationship with his mother as “a kind of marriage.”

The film looks at the importance of Ella and her music for today’s generation of musicians and singers. The film ends with a performance of Ella’s first hit “A Tisket a Tasket” by a 16-year-old girl at the Harlem School of the Arts. Ella lives—a girl again, ready to astonish the world!

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