Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

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Not that you’d expect a jazz singer’s life to be without excess, but Anita O’Day certainly had more than her share of high times and hard times, to reference the title of her autobiography. Robbie Cavolina (O’Day’s manager for a brief period) and Ian McCrudden supply plenty of both in this satisfying portrait of the canary, best known for her extraordinary rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Addictions (primarily a 20-year romance with heroin) and jail time led to the nickname “the Jezebel of Jazz,” and provided the meat for a series of TV interviews from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, part of the remarkable trove of archival footage included here. Dick Cavett politely asks O’Day, “Could you work when you were on the hard stuff?” But smug Bryant Gumbel’s badgering leads the normally unflappable songstress to gnash her formidable teeth. You’ll marvel at her displays of “rhythmic exhibitionism” seen in performances in Sweden and Japan and admire the handsome graphics used to announce the talking heads, such as wry cabaret expert (and TONY contributor) James Gavin. The pretty packaging makes the horrendous visual quality of the interview footage shot shortly before O’Day died in 2006 all the more glaring, but even that is mitigated by what comes out of her mouth.

Release details

Rated: NR
Release date: Friday August 15 2008
Duration: 91 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden
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