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Mill Valley Film Festival
MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Anita O’Day, a singer whose captivating stage presence, rich smoky voice, sophisticated good looks and unique phrasing made her a performer who inspired ecstatic joy and awe, was considered the only white female singer in the same jazz league as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, though she was never as well known.
That she failed to attain the fame of the aforementioned greats or that her career never reached the same heights was in part because of her being her own worst enemy. This and more is discussed by a roster of record industry professionals, jazz critics and friends who sing her praises in “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer,” an engaging if less than revelatory documentary, from Robbie Cavolina (O’Day’s former manager) and Ian McCrudden, which covers her seven-decade career and was screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
For those who read her frank autobiography, “High Times, Hard Times,” there’s little new here. But the docu, which should have a good run on the festival circuit and a second life on television broadcast, will introduce O’Day to the uninitiated and make fans nostalgic for her smooth, feeling delivery, tough-girl demeanor and technical prowess.
O’Day’s famous lightning-fast rhythmic delivery was fueled, in no small measure, by bouts of alcoholism and a 20-year heroin addiction that nearly killed her. Most of the money she earned went directly into her arm or into the system of drummer and fellow junkie John Poole, who died from an overdose.
The filmmakers incorporate grainy TV kinescopes of interviews with Dick Cavett and David Frost — she turns around and turns it on when confronted by a judgmental Bryant Gumbel — testimonials from those who knew her and excerpts from conversations with O’Day, shot in disconcerting extreme close-up shortly before her death last year at 87.
But it’s rare clips of her singing solo or along with Stan Kenton, Hoagy Carmichael, Roy Eldridge, Gene Krupa or Louis Armstrong that grab the spotlight. This includes footage of her memorable, show-stopping rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. High as a kite and dressed in a chic, white-fringed black hat and matching dress, she’s a sight to behold and a supreme pleasure to hear.
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