Now in his 80s, Leslie Woodhead (born in 1937) is one of the most distinguished British documentary filmmakers of his generation but also one whose achievements have never been fully appreciated.
He has made films on a huge range of subjects. Woodhead was there, filming the then unknown Beatles in the Cavern Club in Liverpool in the early 1960s (and watching John Lennon wring out his sweat drenched shirt into a bucket.) He received plaudits for his harrowing documentary A Cry From the Grave, about the massacre at Srebrenica. His 1999 docudrama Endurance, produced by the reclusive movie legend Terrence Malick, tells the story of Ethiopian long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. He has dealt on film with his life as a young spy, eavesdropping on Soviet pilots, for the British army.
And jazz is a life-long obsession which he has often explored in his work.
Woodhead’s latest film Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things, is one of his most personal projects. It tells the story of jazz legend Fitzgerald, a singer he has idolised since childhood. He was always , therefore, the perfect fit for the project that came to him via his producer Reggie Nadelson.
As a child growing up in Yorkshire, Woodhead was surrounded by jazz. His father was a musician with Syd Seymour and his Mad Hatters, “somewhere between a novelty act and a swing band”, as Woodhead describes the outfit. His dad played saxophone, clarinet and violin and was also an arranger. “He came off the road in the late 1930s when I was born.
“My parents had a record shop in Halifax,” Woodhead further explains the origins of his passion. Woodhead chose most of the records that his father stocked. “And you can’t go far in jazz without coming across Ella Fitzgerald.” As one of his interviewees, singer Jamie Cullum said to him, “Ella Fitzgerald is the history of jazz.”
The director recreates the 1934 talent contest at the Apollo theatre in Harlem in which the young Fitzgerald first revealed her genius to the world. She was a scruffy teenager with no formal experience (“an unwashed street urchin in working man’s boots” as she put it) but the moment she sang, everyone knew she was very special. She became a star almost instantly – and a star she stayed.
This isn’t an Amy Winehouse or Billie Holliday-like story about an artist’s career unravelling in tragic fashion in a haze of broken affairs and addictions to banned substances. Fitzgerald didn’t do drugs. When other band members smoked dope on the tour bus, she buried her head beneath a heavy coat which she used as her own “personal filtration system.”
She loved her work. As she liked to say, “the only thing better than singing is…more singing.” The drama in her life came from her struggle to reconcile her professional and domestic lives. She yearned for a quiet domestic existence but would get restless if she stayed too long at home. As her son told Woodhead, she “was always, always torn between wanting to be there for him and needing to get back on the road with, as she put it heartbreakingly, ‘my family,’ which was her musicians.”
Fitzgerald was also far more active in the Civil Rights movement than commonly supposed.
“What we discovered to my surprise was a woman who was much more challenging, much more original, funnier, bolder, an extraordinary musical innovator and pioneer. As soon she finished being one thing, she wanted to be another thing,” comments Woodhead.
Ella… is being distributed by Eagle Rock and will be shown on the BBC next year. The film features interviews with, among others, Andre Previn, Cleo Laine, Itzhak Perlman, Jamie Cullum, Jim Blackman, Johnny Mathis, Margo Jefferson, Max Bennett, Norma Miller, Patti Austin, Ray Brown Jr, Smokey Robinson and Tony Bennett.
Having finished the Ella Fitzgerald film, Woodhead is now working on a book about his chequered experiences directing his Haile Gebrselassie sports doc with Ed Pressman and Malick as producers, and Disney as distributor.
As he discovered, “documentary” is a dirty word in Hollywood. He was told early on never to use it and to say instead he was making “a non-fiction film” if pressed. He met Malick (a “running nut” as Woodhead calls him) many times and got on well with him but found the process of making the $5 million doc within the US studio system disconcerting in the extreme.
He kept exhaustive diaries which he is now drawing on for the book.