Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer
2008, NR, 91 min. Directed by Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden.
REVIEWED By Theresa Everline, Fri., Nov. 28, 2008
A celebratory documentary that skips briskly along to cover a 60-plus-year career, Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer begins in 1941 when O'Day was discovered by the bandleader Gene Krupa and follows the artistic development of this white jazz singer whom many put in the same league as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan. With a vibratoless voice that brings to mind a French horn, O'Day took her 1940s big-band swing style and over time added new shades, such as bebop hipsterism. She was the first singer who recorded for the venerable Verve label, where later Holiday and Fitzgerald would find a home. A true vocal virtuoso, O'Day could put on displays of "rhythmic exhibitionism," as one of the documentary's commentators puts it. A clip of O'Day scat singing proves the point. Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer features excerpts – often frustratingly brief – from interviews O'Day gave everywhere from Dick Cavett's talk show to NPR's Fresh Air. Often, the subject is her nearly two decades of drug addiction and other personal troubles, and the film attempts to be clear-eyed about this material. O'Day on heroin? Yes, it was bad, we're told – but none of the sordidness is shown or even much described. What we see from her junkie period are clips of O'Day brilliantly performing numbers where she's commandingly in charge of her band, including her stunning rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, where she looks fashionably cool in a cocktail dress and garden-party hat. Co-directors Cavolina and McCrudden obviously like their subject too much to let the proceedings become uncomfortable. It takes Bryant Gumbel, of all people, to make O'Day bristle during an interview in which she's visibly trying to keep the tone breezy. Given the long time period that Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer covers, the quality of the archival material varies wildly, and the filmmakers work to create a visual coherence by adding graphic-design elements such as borders around frames and lines bisecting the screen. It's unfortunate, then, that the co-directors didn't take more care to make their own contemporary interviews look better. But the story of O'Day's talent and innovation is well told. A sequence dissecting how she has performed "Let's Fall in Love" over a 40-year period is alone worth the price of admission and shows the best of what a documentary can do.