Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Music documentary

  • Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden

People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing.

And she lived the Jazz lifestyle, complete with bad romantic choices, drug busts, and heroin addiction. But unlike Holiday, she lived to tell the tale, dying in 2006 at the age of 87. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden interviewed her extensively for this documentary, and they treat it as the biography of a still-living, still-vibrant performer.

O’Day clearly lived life to the max. She jokes about bad marriages, overdoses, and other subjects most people wouldn’t want to talk about. And not only with Cavolina and McCrudden, but in vintage television interviews, as well.

The filmmakers wisely keep the scandals in the background (a rape and abortion are alluded to but never discussed), and concentrate on the music. They’re more interested in singing techniques and collaborations than bad habits, and frankly, so am I. The movie’s best sequence starts with an elderly O’Day sings “Let’s Fall in Love,” explaining her technique to the younger pianist accompanying her. Then a montage shows us how she sang that song at different times and with different bands, demonstrating the incredible range and variety of her performances. We even get a split screen showing four performances at once.

Cavolina and McCrudden took great pains to avoid a standard talking-heads documentary. Color patterns decorate old black-and-white footage, simple but lively opticals enliven the transitions, and images that don’t fill the entire screen sometimes move across it. These techniques occasionally seem random, but seldom annoying. Occasionally, such as the “Let’s Fall in Love” montage, they help to bring home a point.

The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings. I guess it did its job.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer opens Friday at the Kabuki‘s SFFS screen.