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Fox Lorber presents
American Masters: Ella Fitzgerald Something to Live For (1999)

"It was like the greatest thing that I'd ever heard. There was nothing like it for someone like myself, who loved to sing, to listen to that music, played and sung with such joie de vivre, with such abandon. It was someone who had complete control over what they were doing, and they could do it upside down, backwards, forwards, round, down, any way. It's mind-boggling to me."
- Johnny Mathis, on first hearing Fitzgerald sing live

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: May 31, 2000

Stars: Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett (narrator)
Other Stars: Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington orchestra, Chick Webb Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Shore, Joan Sutherland, Jimmy Durante, Mel Torme, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie Orchestra, Joe Pass
Director: Charlotte Zwerin

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:28m:26s
Release Date: January 25, 2000
UPC: 720917306223
Genre: jazz

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+B-B- B-

DVD Review

Having seen the life stories of too many musicians on VH-1, I approached this Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) biography with some trepidation. Thankfully, we aren't given the cliched "price of fame" section in her life; we are spared any tales of drug or alcohol abuse. Ella Fitzgerald's life was far from happy, since she grew estranged from her son and suffered badly from health problems, but this is really only touched on tangentially; the emphasis here is truly on the music.

And what an accumulation of music it is! Fitzgerald was of course one of the great voices of the 20th century. She sang great alone, and also sang in tandem with many of the other big stars of the 40's, 50's and 60's. The list of guest stars is a veritable who's who of the vocalists of the century. We get quite a few performances here, ranging in time from the 30's to the 70's. The one constant is that transparent voice, singing scat or emulating instruments at will. There is one highly amusing segment where she performs a duel with Booty Wood on trombone, mimicking the sound of the trombone masterfully until Wood gives up in complete exasperation.

In addition to the performance segments and clips from films, we also get modern day interviews with musicians who worked with Ella, as well as some of her friends. In all, we get a pretty good picture of Fitzgerald as a person. It probably is too basic for enthusiasts, but makes a great introduction for people like me who don't have very much knowledge of her life. The enthusiasts will want this program for the performances, many of which are rare, so the balance is well set to appeal to a broad cross section.

While some of the interviews are of the "she was the greatest voice ever" type, many of the interviewees, particularly her musician friends, are quite forthcoming about her and their recollections. Particularly poignant are the tales of racial difficulty, where she and the band might be turned away from a restaurant even though they were driving up in a limousine.


A-tisket, a-tasket
It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing
Angel Eyes
It's All Right With Me
I Want Something to Live For
The Man I Love
Lush Life
The Lady is a Tramp
For Once in my Life
Once in a While

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Since some of the film clips tend to be very old, the image quality is quite variable. While there is some damage, the older clips tend to be surprisingly good. The videotaped shows from the 60's and 70's tend to look somewhat worse, due to the faded washed out color, but they are by no means unwatchable. Since this is a television program produced for PBS, it's not surprising that major restoration was not undertaken. The modern interviews uniformly look good and have lifelike color. The black levels are adequate and shadow detail is decent for a television program. Overall, the quality is reasonably good but not spectacular.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono sound is surprisingly good. The very early recordings are naturally hissy and crackly, but almost everything after about 1940 sounds just fine. The recording of Angel Eyes is the most crackly, but it is a very heartfelt performance. Particularly notable is a painfully blue rendition of Summertime which comes through with all of the heartache intact. On the Memorex commercials, be sure to hide the stemware.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Additional Interviews
  2. Two Memorex commercials
  3. CD Discography
Extras Review: This documentary includes several interesting extras. First off, there are five additional interviews totaling over 20 minutes. These include accompanists Hank Jones and Paul Smith, who reminisce about mishaps on tour in Europe and on early TV in Montevideo, as well as the making of the infamous Memorex commercials. Bassist Keter Betts tells an anecdote about Ella and Miles Davis, and also plays the bass solo, "Poor Butterfly", which he played at her 1996 funeral. We also hear from her friend, Jim Blackman, and a professional appreciation from Johnny Mathis. These interviews nicely amplify the content of the main program and make the picture feel much more complete.

Two of the classic Memorex commercials with the breaking glass are included. The picture on these is somewhat soft but the sound is excellent.

Finally, there is a CD discography which seems practically endless. It is a huge list that scrolls by, set to the sound of I Want Something to Live For. Jazz fans will no doubt find this discography useful. The sheer quantity of recordings is amazing.

The chaptering is completely inadequate for a show of this length; I would have liked access to each song individually. Subtitling would have been nice, but is not included.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

As documentaries go, this is one of the more interesting I've seen. Those who like swing or jazz will definitely want to own this program.


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