Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

While peers and critics have no qualms about equating her with Ella, Sarah and Billie, Anita O’Day’s passing in 2006 at age 87 was met with relatively little fanfare by the mainstream media, which is all the more reason to savor this engrossing documentary. O’Day’s gifts as a vocalist were unassailable. Preferring the word “stylist” to “singer,” she was a master of expression, timing and phrasing whose improvisational skills matched any of the instrumentalists with whom she was allied. In myriad performance clips, stretching back to the ’40s and threaded throughout the program, O’Day continually dazzles. Her 1958 Newport reading of “Sweet Georgia Brown” may be the definitive take on that chestnut, and she didn’t just front Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge at the start of her career-she outshone them.

But O’Day’s musical aptitude was always overshadowed by her considerable personal troubles, and directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden neither whitewash nor overplay the soap-opera-esque trajectory of her life, as she survived jail time and abortion, failed marriages, alcohol abuse and a two-decade, widely reported heroin addiction instigated and enabled by her longtime drummer John Poole. O’Day, in interview segments conducted both during her prime and late in life, is matter-of-fact about those experiences, recounting them in a feisty, boisterous tone. “That’s the way it went down,” she says at one point, and there’s no sense of regret when she says it. Through all of the tumult she was never a quitter, and her durability and resilience are remarkable.

Accordingly, the obligatory commentary by critics and associates-from Will Friedwald to Annie Ross to Gerald Wilson-is nearly all upbeat and supportive. While no one condones her behavior, there’s a general consensus that O’Day turned her problems into strengths. Unlike, say, Billie Holiday, there’s no indication that O’Day’s addiction debilitated her; even at her most strung-out, O’Day’s chops were seemingly unaffected. And the fact that-having long ago left the drugs and other craziness behind-she was still performing (albeit with diminished vocal capabilities) until shortly before her death is a testament to her iron will.

A second DVD includes uninterrupted performance clips and interview outtakes, and a deluxe edition comes with a hardcover book stuffed with photocopies of hundreds of original reviews and articles from O’Day’s prime years. It’s well worth the additional cost.