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Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

by Tony Phillips
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Jul 26, 2009
Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Live fast, die young, stay pretty: it's always been a sensible credo for any artist wishing to cement their legend by self-destructing early and spectacularly. Jazz singer Anita O'Day managed to tick off two of these three requirements, but lived until the ripe old age of 87 before she passed three years ago. Perhaps she was less Deborah Harry and more Cinderella.

In the 2007 documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, new to home video, Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden have another pass at not only cementing the legend, but also letting a general audience know just who the hell O'Day was and why most jazz aficionados will place her in the same sentence as Billie, Ella and Sarah.

"Rape, abortion, jail, heroin addiction," is how a television interviewer categorizes O'Day's journey and the film manages to address all of these harrowing issues while still sidestepping the usual Behind the Music taxidermy. The filmmakers are okay with some of the questions raised going unanswered. For example, O'Day's response to these four pivotal events in her life? "That's the way it went down," she shrugs.

And as this film makes clear, O'Day's contribution to jazz was that movement itself, even if it was in a generally downward-spiraling direction. When addressing her early years fronting big bands as a "canary," O'Day explains that she eschewed the "be pretty, wear a dress" wisdom of that time by grabbing one of the band's jackets for herself and pairing it with a simple skirt. "You gotta move" is how O'Day sums up her ground-breaking fashion moment that literally changed the face of music.

At times, it seems as if Cavolina and McCrudden are happy to play meth-amphetamined Ken Burns to O’Day’s smacked-up chanteuse. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

This film follows suit, using hyper-kinetic cuts, dissolves and overlays to a sometime distracting extent. No slow and easy pans across archival press clippings and photos here. At times, it seems as if Cavolina and McCrudden are happy to play meth-amphetamined Ken Burns to O'Day's smacked-up chanteuse. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

They pull off a split-screen effect when a photographer is talking about his camera session with O'Day on the right while the results of those shoots are displayed on the left, but when their tinkering in post goes south, it's really all over the map. Consider the shot with a sheet music overlay, text scrolling up the screen and O'Day singing in the background while a different voice narrates the scene.

Talking head interviews composed with the rule of thirds make it clear that at least one of these two went to film school, but overlaying a chunky, horizontal salmon stripe over half the subject's head just busies up the shot. It's as if they're trying to bring jazz to the cinematic form, but it's just not saying anything. Even when O'Day is scatting, she's still got plenty to say, but sometimes the viewer just wishes the boys would leave the camera on the damn tripod for a minute.

Still, a jazz audience will be willing to forgive a lot of excess in craft for some of the amazing gems these two filmmakers have uncovered. The film includes archival footage of more than 30 songs and even when they borrow O'Day's legendary turn at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival memorialized in Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day, they find a way to make it their own, letting O'Day voice-over the fact that she wasn't even aware she was being filmed.

"They catch me coming up to the stage and I step in a puddle," O'Day narrates as the action simultaneously unspools in Stern's film. "So my glass slipper goes into the puddle and it shows me shaking my leg like this. And I'm dressed to the hilt with my hat to boot and that was my entrance." It's been a long time since O'Day commanded that stage in a black cocktail dress, white gloves and a floppy black hat with white ostrich feathers. It's only fitting that after all this time, the "five o'clock tea party" Cinderella wound up with not one prince to tell her story, but two.

Tony Phillips covers the arts for The Village Voice, Frontiers and The Advocate. He’s also the proud parent of a new website: spookyelectricproductions.com.


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