The challenge of any music documentary paying tribute to a performer, in this case jazz singer Anita O’Day, is to succeed in capturing enough of the essence of that talent to thrill all audiences and not just jazz lovers. And when the individual in question is still alive – as O’Day was, though she passed away later in 2006 at the age of 87 – the task is clearly more problematic in terms of delicate issues to be probed with sufficient candor.
Anita O’Day: The Life Of A Jazz Singer succeeds admirably in the first instance, and understandably less so in the matter of potentially stripping away and laying bare, painful memories and difficult wounds. And while a close personal friendship with O’Day infuses the work with a singular intimacy and brings forth revelations possibly not otherwise at hand – Robbie Cavolina, who co-directed with Ian McCrudden, was her manager for the final six years of her life – that kind of subjectivity also has the potential to limit the scrutiny of the cinematic inquiry.
The material that these filmmakers have garnered provides a rich tapestry of O’Day’s evolution, and the development of a profoundly expressive and charismatic jazz artist who explored the enormous range of her vocal gifts across the many decades with an astonishing imaginative subversion of any musical status quo. O’Day is seen likewise playfully challenging the accepted race and gender conventions on stage, as she defiantly crossed racial lines to perform without inhibition with black musicians, and refused the traditional feminine evening gowns deemed appropriate for women on stage, in favor of a more casual, sporty look.
The film dazzles with its musical portrait of this unsung legend, which leads to a yearning to know much more. Except for some spare anecdotal material provided by jazz experts and O’Day herself, there’s little in the way of exactly how, when and where this gifted woman seems to have suddenly popped up on the stage out of nowhere. And though there are solemn and at times oddly humorous digressions into the matter of her long struggle with heroin addiction, other personal traumas such as enduring rape, are mentioned more than once in passing, but never explained. Another element that would have gone far towards solidifying this fascinating portrait, is a grounding in the social context of the times, and how O’Day must surely have interacted way ahead of her time as a white woman, with a society back then far less comfortable with the ease with which she slipped into black cultural life and a euphoric, ideal colorblind world.