No One But Me is a deeply personal and yet easily accessible documentary from filmmaker Brian Ross, telling the life story of Scottish-born Jazz sensation Annie Ross. Annie was born in Glasgow but moved to New York at the age of four to live with her aunt Ella Logan, a successful singer. Annie describes the tense relationship she had with her aunt as she pursued a career in the music industry; her big break came when she was spotted by Duke Ellington and asked to replace Billie Holiday at the New York Apollo, and it allowed her to be independent. It wasn’t a straight forward success story for Annie though, and No One But Me documents the hardships she faced, such as the controversy surrounding her having a baby with black musician Kenny Clarke in 1950s America and her struggles with heroin addiction later in life.
A sense of home is central to No One But Me. So where does Annie consider home? Her show biz stories of stars such as Billie Holiday and Lenny Bruce, and her time performing in clubs in New York and Los Angeles suggest that Annie is most at home in America. However, she attributes her recovery from drug addiction to spending time in Scotland with her “best friend” and brother Jimmy Logan. She says she was “too young to die” from using drugs and her story of recovery is inspirational.
Brian Ross uses beautiful takes of rolling rivers and pleasant fields in central Scotland as a background to Annie’s story representing her affinity with the country of her birth. The director contrasts this with shots of a bustling New York to add to the fast paced life Annie lived in the Jazz era in the United States. Although Annie’s American accent makes it easy to forget her ancestry, closer inspection of the American hotel room in which Annie speaks to Ross about her life reveals a bottle of Macallan whisky over her shoulder as she speaks to the camera. You can take the girl out of the country but you can’t deny her roots.
Director Ross and producer Gill Parry made a decision early on in the three years that it took to develop, film and release the documentary that they would focus on Annie’s singing career. Brian Ross’s comments in person at the film’s DCA screening affirmed the appropriateness of film’s focus: despite her health when the film was made, she never seemed more “alive” then when she was singing to an audience. The film, and its focus on her music, thus seems a fitting testament to her life and work.
Unusually for a documentary there is no narrator, instead Ross allows Annie to tell her story through her memories and anecdotes in addition to interviews with Annie’s contemporaries, Jon Hendricks and James Wormworth. As Ross was acting as both director and cameraman during the filming of No One But Me there are often long takes lingering on Annie’s face when she speaks of the more harrowing times in her life; these close up make for uncomfortable viewing as they show just how painful the memories are. However, Annie is a natural storyteller and such camera work create a very intimate bond between her and the audience.
This film is a must for fans of Jazz. However, you needn’t be a music fan to appreciate Annie’s story. If one thing is certain about Annie, it is that she is a lady with a loud voice and a personality to match. On the subject of ageing, Annie quotes Sean Connery, “Life is a three act play. Good in the beginning, good in the middle and shit at the end.” That being said she’s certainly not letting that third act stop her from doing what she loves.