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Film

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

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It’s that smile, those lusty teeth, somehow coy and seductive, warm and haughty. It’s a lush “I don’t give a damn” smile. Beneath the sweet sound of Anita O’Day is the smile of a woman who’s lived her life uncompromisingly on her own terms. The new documentary about O’Day, by filmmakers Cavolina and McCrudden, takes us behind the scenes of one of jazz’s great singers, and perhaps the only white female singer to be mentioned in the same company as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

The Details

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer
Three stars
Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden
Not Rated
Opens Friday, November 7
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O’Day cut her teeth with the ’40s big bands of Gene Krupa, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, before embarking on a solo career that highlighted her sense of time, her ability to scat and her light way with a melody. Her career highlight came at the famous Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, when she took the stage in the late afternoon with a black-and-white summer dress and a black straw hat studded with ostrich feathers and wowed the crowd. As jazz’s popularity waned in the States, she toured successfully for many years in Japan.

The film captures O’Day in vintage performances and recent interviews conducted shortly before her death in 2006. The downside of her jazz life—jail time for drug possession and a 16-year heroin habit—is not glossed over at all. And yet it is. Her habit of shrugging off her demons (she makes a joke of suffering a massive OD) is at once breathlessly open and mysteriously inscrutable—and confirms that O’Day was a genuine tough broad.

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