O'Day oh: 'Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer' immortalizes a great and opens on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas this week. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

'Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer'

Dennis Harvey September 23, 2008

It’s a constant source of delight on the festival scene—and will no doubt continue to be in the immediate future, with our own SF Docfest just around the corner—how many good documentaries are made about the most unlikely subjects. But every once in a while a subject itself proves so natural a focus that you think, "A documentary had to be made about this," and wonder why no one thought of it earlier. I don’t mean obvious Big Issues like global warming or Iraq (two subjects that have inspired so many worthwhile docs you could program entire film festivals or class curriculums around them), but rather small slices-of-life or individual personalities who turn out to have a LOT of drama going on when you look closer. Who knew?

Well, probably people other than me knew about Anita O’Day. Being no jazzbo (unless liking stuff like, say, "Chet Baker Sings"counts—which I’m pretty sure doesn’t), for me, she was a familiar name but not much more until Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden’s Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer played last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. She was rendered so cool, charismatic and fascinating I felt kinda dumb for not having got hip to the chick before. Now the film is getting a well-deserved run on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

Whether you dig jazz or not, O’Day’s charisma and her story make this movie riveting. She was considered one of the "Three Queens"—with Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald—amongst jazz vocalists (a canon later expanded to embrace Sarah Vaughan), and the only non-African American among them.

She was glamorous, a sassy "one of the boys" hepster, and sexy senior who survived all cliche pitfalls of jazz divadom. (Not for nothing does the film’s title include the phrase "The Life of a Jazz Singer"; hers was archetypal.) It didn’t exclude too many husbands and too much heroin, two things she finally, mercifully "got enough of" to figure she oughtta quit. She was by turns the star you worship from a distance, the train-wreck you’re grateful you didn’t have to deal with, then the salty auntie you wish you had.

Cavolina and McCrudden have done a terrific job assembling Life of a Jazz Singer, but what makes this seem an enchanted documentary is O’Day herself. (Who died late 2006 in her late 80s.)

In vintage performance clips (mostly for TV shows), she’s a dazzling stylist, particularly in bebop acrobatics one fellow musician describes as "her rhythmic exhibitionism…amazingly swinging time."  In vintage interview clips with TV hosts like Dick Cavett, she’s bluntly revealing about past mistakes. (One fellow musician here admits she was "Sometimes too hard-boiled for some people.") In new ones, she’s joyously feisty—and still highly musical. She even made a final record called Indestructible! Mortality may have finally caught up with Anita O’Day, but this documentary underlines her immortality.