Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most-loved artists in the history of jazz and popular music, her singing echoing through American life from the '30s into the '90s (she died in 1996).
Fitzgerald was also somewhat of an enigma. Gifted with enormous natural skills, she was also seen by many observers as a relatively unsophisticated interpreter of lyrics. An extraordinarily successful and highly visible African American artist, she was revered in every strata of American society but, with a few exceptions, rarely took a political stance.
"Biography: Forever Ella," which can be seen tonight at 9 on A&E and leads off a week of programming devoted to such legendary artists as Nat King Cole, Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Quincy Jones, is an ambitious two-hour documentary aimed at illuminating the life of this remarkable woman.
In addition to an extensive Fitzgerald interview, recorded in 1986, there are conversations and commentary with Jones, Benny Carter, Billy Taylor, Anita O'Day, Rosemary Clooney, Al Jarreau, Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Excerpts from numerous Fitzgerald performances, including seven complete musical numbers, are also included.
Nancy Wilson's narration generally follows a historical arc, touching upon every stage in the Fitzgerald career, from the youthful breakaway success of her "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" to her final concerts, which--despite her illnesses--continued to be informed by the buoyant spirit that was a central element in her performing persona. Unfortunately, however, the script for the narration is burdened with far too many complimentary platitudes. Fitzgerald's worth is so self-evident--even to those unfamiliar with the details of her life--that the continuing affirmations soon become wearying.
The most insightful commentary, in fact, is almost always provided by musicians, who clearly understood that she was one of them. Gillespie, Jones, Taylor and Carter all emphasize her remarkably intuitive musicality--a connection with the improvisational elements of jazz that was far more like that of an instrumentalist than a singer.
Despite all the accumulation of detailed information, much of it redundant, the inner Fitzgerald remains elusive, even in her own interview. And that may be because--as the superb performance segments make amply clear--the only real way to know her, to understand her art and her persona, was through her music.
* "Biography: Forever Ella" can be seen tonight at 9 on A&E.