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Anita O’Day (Photo: Palm Pictures)

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Directed by
Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden
Produced by
Cavolina, McCrudden & Melissa Davis
Released by
Palm Pictures
USA. 92 min. Not Rated

Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer is an unusual jazz documentary—it actually communicates the excitement of a singer’s music making. Most biographical tributes are just strings of accolades from experts and fellow musicians with tendentious pronouncements of the artist’s significance that are quizzically supported by grainy clips. Instead, Anita O’Day’s musicianship is so exciting here that this film does not just cater to fans but can generate new ones.

Co-directed by her last manager, Robbie Cavolina, the film deftly edits together O’Day’s conversations and appearances near the end of her life in 2006 with sassy television interviews, particularly from when her 1983 autobiography High Times, Hard Times was published, which emphasized, of course, her obligatory descent into and triumph over drugs. Not just a gutsy woman emerges, but a portrait of a brilliant musician, through an astonishing variety of film clips from around the world through decades of her career.

The film starts conventionally with the usual insider praise, ranking her with the great vocalists Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald (a pantheon that is repeated frequently throughout the film, including by jazz critics Leonard Feather and Phil Schaap and singer Annie Ross.) O’Day briefly provides chronological biographical details, how she reinvented herself with a last name based on pig Latin slang for money and on through her failed marriages and medical problems. She relishes describing singing for tips as a teenager and her debut as a last minute replacement in 1941 for “the girl singer” with drummer Gene Krupa’s big band.

The film then explodes once she and trumpeter Roy Eldridge are shown stepping out from the band to duet on “Let Me Off Uptown.” We don’t need to hear the various experts say how extraordinary it was then to see a white woman cooing on a first name basis about the heat a black man is generating from his horn as she dances around him. Even today their equal, incendiary pairing is usually only seen on all-star projects—and these two were performing this number nightly at clubs around the country. But it’s not just the integrated racial aspect that makes them thrilling together. Looked at from a post-rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, so many formally dressed performers in old black-and-white clips usually look stiffly rhythm-challenged. But O’Day gets the beat. No wonder she was the only white woman headliner at the Apollo.

So her frustration with swing smoothness is readily understandable as she explains her rejection of the Krupa band (“I didn’t want to stand in a ball gown and be glamorous”) to instead tour and scat with small improvisatory bebop ensembles. Traveling as “one of the guys,” she picks up their bad habits that her trademark long gloves had to hide, very much like Chet Baker’s experiences in Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, including jail time covered in press headlines.

As honest as she is about that past and explaining that her singing style compensates for a botched tonsil operation, she is insistent about her musical control, supported by interviews with several arrangers who worked with her over the years (as her many album covers flash by), and demonstrated when, in her eighties, she rehearses for a concert. Clips of four very different performances over many years of “Let’s Fall in Love” vividly showcase her experimentation with different keys and tempos.

Her enthralling performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, in a clip from Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, is a stunning reinterpretation of a familiar standard. But as the years are seen going by with different hair styles, full performances from Europe and Japan on such songs as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” and “Love for Sale” are just as captivating.

Most of the interviewees, whether fans or colleagues, are articulate and informative for both the cognoscenti and learners, with the exception of actor/director John Cameron Mitchell, whose inclusion isn’t explained for any expertise and whose comments add nothing to the repetition of commendations. While this film would fit as an episode of PBS’s adulatory American Masters series, it rises beyond the educational to the celebration of the role of the song stylist for the Great American Songbook. Nora Lee Mandel
August 15, 2008



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