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DOC TALK

Doc Talk: celebrating the first lady of song, visiting Boston’s mean streets, fighting the Axis from above

Ella Fitzgerald in 1964.
Ella Fitzgerald in 1964.David Redfern/Redferns

On Nov. 21, 1934, a scrawny 17-year-old dancer in shabby clothes took the stage for the first time at an Apollo Theater Amateur Night contest. When she saw the dancing duo that preceded her she knew she couldn’t compete with them and wanted to leave. But the organizers forced her on stage anyway so she decided to sing “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.”

She won first prize, and so began the career of Ella Fitzgerald.

That’s one of the legendary anecdotes in Leslie Woodhead’s “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things.” It also abounds with wall-to-wall performances of her music as it follows the singer (who died in 1996) through the many stages of a six-decade career during which she won 13 Grammys, sold over 40 million albums, and collaborated with such greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank Sinatra. What might she have achieved if not for the inveterate racism of the music industry and American society? Even in the late 1950s the ritzy Mocambo Club in Los Angeles turned her down until her good friend and champion Marilyn Monroe pressured them into booking her. And though she always wanted to have her own TV show, the networks were too leery to give her the opportunity, with the exception of one special, in the 1960s.

She revolutionized the art of singing, her style and repertoire evolving from swing, pop, bebop, to a reinterpretation of the Great American Songbook of classic tunes by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and others. She is especially renowned for her mastery of scat, the technique by which a single vocalist can incorporate the complexity, improvisations, and allusions of a multi-instrument jazz combo.

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In a famous performance in Berlin in 1960, caught in one of many outstanding archival sequences in the film, she launches into a five minute scat that includes snatches of around 40 different tunes, such as “Stormy Weather,” “Yes We Have No Bananas” in a minor key, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (with “Smoke” replaced by “Sweat”), her 1938 hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and asides like “I better quit while I’m ahead,” before returning to the original song “How High the Moon.” The inventiveness and virtuosity will dazzle you, but the depth and eloquence of her rendition of “Summertime” will stir your soul.

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“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” can be streamed beginning June 26 via virtual screening rooms at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brattle Theatre, and West Newton Cinema.

Dequan Bop and his brothers.
Dequan Bop and his brothers.Mike Pecci

What is and isn’t ‘normal’

Many Bostonians won’t recognize the neighborhoods in local filmmaker Rudy Hypolite’s raw and potent documentary, “This Ain’t Normal,” which is all the more reason for them to watch it. Focusing on five young men from Roxbury, Mattapan, and the South End whose lives teeter between the solidarity of criminal street gangs and the stability of family responsibilities, the film illustrates the self-perpetuating pattern of poverty, crime, broken homes, stress, addiction, and the lack of options that leads to turf wars, drug dealing, and internecine killings.

More arrests and incarcerations won’t solve the problem, the film argues, but will only further disrupt the social fabric and make matters worse. As an alternative to this approach Hypolite shows the impact of community-based organizations like StreetSafe Boston, an intervention group of mentors who have undergone the same challenges themselves and overcome them.

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They have the credibility and wisdom to change lives. One relates how a gang member had challenged him by asking if he had ever been a gang member himself. He told him that he joined one at 9, which is when he “shot his first individual." The silent look of anguish that follows that confession proves that his credibility and wisdom were hard earned.

The five subjects are funny, rowdy, stoic, and hopeful. They are also talented — many see music as a way to change their lives; and judging from the film’s sampling of their rousing, wrenching rap songs, it’s a dream worth pursuing.

“This Ain’t Normal” can be streamed on numerous platforms, including DirecTV, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.

Go to www.kreateabuzzdocfilms.com/tan.

A B-24 bomber, from "Return to Hardwick."
A B-24 bomber, from "Return to Hardwick."John Marr Collection

Missions accomplished

Today Hardwick Aerodrome 104, the home base of the 93rd Bomb Group, just outside of Norwich, England, is farmland, acres of green fields studded here and there with battered Quonset huts and the shells of other structures. But eight decades ago squadrons of B-24s set off from there for bombing runs against the Axis powers.

Not all returned. As Michael Sellers’s compelling and informative “Return to Hardwick” dramatically shows, the 93rd experienced triumph and tragedy during its 1942-45 service, which included a record 396 bombing runs over enemy targets ranging from North Africa to Berlin.

Sellers, himself the grandson of a 93rd Bomb Group member, tells the outfit’s story through the recollections of survivors, who meet periodically at their old posting and tour the much-altered landscape and recall their experiences. Their memories offer a firsthand look at the history of the air campaign against Germany, including the disastrous low-level attack on the Ploesti oil fields, in Romania, their supporting role in D-Day, and their participation in the Battle of the Bulge. The terrors of deadly fighter attacks and the carnage inflicted by flak are recounted vividly and shown in archival clips and photos.

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Younger generations also participate in these reunions, including the daughter of an airman and a Red Cross nurse who visits the church where they were married, and the nephew of an airman who tracks down the site where his uncle perished in a crash. “Return to Hardwick” pays heartfelt tribute to American heroes who should never be forgotten.

“Return to Hardwick” is available digitally on numerous platforms, including Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.

Go to www.hardwickfilm.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.