I saw this documentary film last night, and I didn’t realize how rare an opportunity it was, since there are only a few screenings ongoing in the US. The film was produced in the UK, and has been showing in Europe since last year.
It was emotional seeing and hearing Ella’s life and music unfold on a big screen. There was an opening scene with Ella scatting something I couldn’t identify, but which musically perfectly defined the soul of her style.
They talked about her epic scatting in “How High the Moon.” and played excerpts. There were clips of her scatting with the be-bop guys. There was a video I hadn’t seen before of her singing “But Not For Me” at a walking ballad tempo (starting on the I chord, not the ii chord). Another scene showed her singing “Love For Sale” at a slower-than-expected tempo but swinging with an amazing groove. They mentioned her Great American Songbook recordings, but they didn’t specifically mention my personal favorite, “Blues Skies.”
Some of the jazz artists who were seen and heard on the screen included Tommy Flannigan, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Chick Webb, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Cleo Laine, and many others. There were also segments of the film of Ella dealing with race, social issues, and politics; other segments showing her family life, including with her son, Ray Brown Jr.
One interesting segment talked about her agent, Norman Granz. He often tried to micro-manage the performers, telling them which songs in their repertoire to play and when. When Ella appeared with Sinatra, Norman tried to tell Frank what song to open with and which songs to include in his set; Frank got pissed and had Norman tossed out of the performing venue. Norman retaliated and subsequently refused to hire Frank to perform alongside Ella.
I would liked to have seen more interviews with the musicians who worked with her. What musical quirks did she have? What were her strengths, musically? How and what was the interaction between her and the musicians? There was a little of this here, but maybe there is more included in her written biographies or other films of her.
Another minor suggestion would be to trim some of the scenes that went too long without talking about Ella’s artistry or music, and the film would have been a little bit tighter. At the end of the day, it’s still a well-constructed documentary film about a great artist, with lots of great music: Five Stars * * * * *