"Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," following on the heals of "Let’s Get Lost," the Chet Baker documentary, is the second straight riveting jazz film I’ve watched in as many weeks. If Chet Baker was a jazz great, Anita O’Day is a jazz legend. She’s a bona fide member the that select group of timeless female vocalists, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. "The Life of Jazz Singer" is a fast-paced, mesmerizing look at Anita O’Day’s equally frenetic, edgy career.
The subtitle of the film could easily have been, "That’s the way it went Down," Anita’s matter of fact response to the borderline obnoxious string of questions that a young Bryant Gumbel peppered her with during a t.v. interview. She had a practically unbelievable list of "highlights" to choose from - that included a long stretch as a heroin addict (15 years), 4 marriages, a stint in jail for marijuana possession, constantly broke (despite constantly booked), and performing well into her 80's!
That she survived that list is the real story. In the late 1960's Anita was pronounced dead, literally, in a hospital emergency room. Remarkably, she defied that somewhat premature prognosis and came back to life - to everyone’s astonishment but her own. Luckily, she took it as an omen to kick the heroin habit - which she did cold turkey! While no longer addicted to heroin, this incredible woman continued her 30+ year relationship with drummer, John Poole (a man she didn’t marry), a fellow heroin addict.
The film is hardly all about her hard times. One of my favorite parts of the documentary is Anita’s behind the scenes description of that iconic image of her in the feathered wide-brim hat and cocktail dress worn at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. When she asked her manager what time she went on, Anita was surprised (to say the least) when he said she had the afternoon slot! She went shopping that morning and picked out what she wore randomly. Together with her cool, sensuous performance of "Sweet Georgia Brown" it became an iconic career moment.
Another interesting aspect of the film it the generous use of album covers to paint the many sides on Anita O’Day over the years she recorded for Verve. And, in the same vein that the Chet Baker’s "Let’s Get Lost" juxtaposed him in present day performance against his younger self, watching a O’Day perform "The Nearness of You" in her mid-80's is powerful stuff. She was, in every definition of the word, a survivor.
This is a must-see film for any jazz fan - add it to your Netflix queue