There's some footage of Fitzgerald on stage with Jazz at the Philharmonic -the mammoth tours organized by Granz that featured a roster of jazz A-listers. JATP, the narrator relates, was seen by some purists as a little more than a circus, although the musicians were hailed as stars, paid well, and importantly for Granz, accorded respect as human beings. Perhaps the naturally shy Fitzgerald didn't feel the need to use her platform to speak out on racism when her manager, Granz, was heroically fighting the Afro-American musicians' corner for integrated venues and racial equality.
Granz also founded Verve Records, on which Fitzgerald would famously record a series of eight songbook albums. Fitzgerald, initially, had her doubts: "At first I thought, my gosh, what is Norman doing? He's taking me away from my jazz and who wants to listen to me singing this? But it was funny, I just gained so many fans all over the world. So, it was like a new beginning."
The songbook records sold in huge numbers and helped cement the songs of Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin etc, in the jazz cannon. Absent from the film's narrative, however, are any voices of dissent, notably of certain jazz critics such as Nat Hentoff
, who felt that Fitzgerald's talent was wasted on such popular material.
Another figure who championed Fitzgerald was actress Marilyn Monroe, who helped the singer get a gig in the normally whites-only Mocambo in Hollywood, by telling the owner she would take a front-row table every night that Fitzgerald played there. Monroe was as good as her word and it's interesting to hear Fitzgerald acknowledge that she owed Monroe a great debt for helping to lift her out of jazz clubs and reach a wider audience.
The film boasts some never-before-seen-footage, though live footage in general is both short in duration and mostly familiar. There's Fitzgerald at Ronnie Scott's, Fitzgerald with the JATP, and Fitzgerald at the Montreux Jazz Festival, receiving flowers from Claude Nobs
. Less is probably more, and on the whole Woodhead achieves just the right balance between portraying Fitzgerald's career, the environment in which she existed, and the unfolding history of half of the twentieth century.
Also included in the film is a famous audio snatch of the singer scatting in Berlin's Deutshclandhalle in 1960, when Fitzgerald's breathless five-minute improvisation during "How High the Moon" drew upon show-tunes, nursery rhymes, symphonies, jigs and folk tunesover forty tunes in all, author/music critic Will Friedwald informs us. In a way, this clip offers the most complete portrait of Fitzgerald, underlining her technical brilliance, the music that informed her, and the popular roots of jazz.
The final scene returns the viewer to Harlem's Apollo Theater, where sixteen-year-old Alexis Morrast sings "A-Tisket A-Tasket" to the empty stalls. It's a poignant reminder of how far Fitzgerald came, and where she came from.