Jazz-singer tribute orchestrates interviews and swinging music into great bio-pic
When great female jazz singers are listed, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn are always on top. Somewhere in the second tier is a woman who deserves to move up.
Anita O’Day, who died in 2006 at the age of 87, tells much of her own story in interviews recently conducted by the filmmakers and archivally by Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder and Bryant Gumbel. When Gumbel mentions that her life has included rape, abortion and heroin addiction she replies, "That’s just the way it went down, Bryant."
Somewhat reminiscent of Elaine Stritch, another plain speaking "old broad," O’Day has nothing to hide, having revealed it all in her autobiography. She was discovered by Gene Krupa and sang with his band from 1940-44, scoring a hit with "Let Me off Uptown," a groundbreaking interracial duet with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. She next spent a year with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, lining up June Christy as a replacement when she left to sing with small groups instead.
The big band era ended, and some vocalists (e.g., Doris Day, Peggy Lee) found pop success while O’Day and others remained in the less lucrative jazz world. O’Day was the first female vocalist signed to the Verve label. And with her rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," she stole the show at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, preserved in Bert Sterns documentary "Jazz on a Summers Day."
About 40 songs are sampled in this film, with a few full performances. "Lets Fall in Love" is presented in a montage of renditions filmed over five decades. "Body and Soul," "Tea for Two" and other standards are sung as well as they’ve ever been.
After two marriages, O’Day began her longest relationship, professional as well as personal, with drummer John Poole, in 1954. He reluctantly turned her on to heroin, starting a habit that lasted 15 years but didn’t kill her as it did many of her contemporaries.
Avoiding narration, the filmmakers fill in a few gaps with printed information. One such title is too vague, saying she went to Japan in the early ’60s when jazz started waning in the U.S. and toured for the next 30 years.
Trumpeter Denny Roche describes O’Day as "a musician who used her voice as an instrument." She preferred to call herself a "song stylist" rather than a "singer."
A number of performers (including Margaret Whiting and Annie Ross), arrangers and historians come off more as fans than critics or biographers in talking about O’Day. Perhaps the most unusual person interviewed is gay performer and "Hedwig" filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell, who describes her improvisatory style: "There was a sense of ‘Fuck you’ about it."
The only time O’Day is at a loss for words in the film is when she’s asked to define jazz, but her performances do that superlatively.
|ANITA O’DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER|
|B||Directors: Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden
Featuring: Anita O’Day, John Cameron Mitchell, Amy Albany, Buddy Bregman and David Boska
Opens: Nov. 14 at the Angelika Dallas.
1 hr. 33 min. Not rated.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 14, 2008.