1959’s Gene Krupa Story might be a flawed film, but there is a great scene of Anita O’Day singing “Memories of You” at an after hours party. “Who’s the snake charmer,” Sal Mineo asks as Krupa. His femme fatale girlfriend responds: “Anita O’Day. Not bad, if you like talent.” While brief, its one of my favorite O’Day clips, and one of the few not included in a new O’Day documentary opening Friday in New York and LA. Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (trailer here), draws from extensive archival performance and interview footage, focusing squarely on O’Day’s music rather than her melodramatic life.
O’Day’s first real national exposure did indeed come with Krupa’s band, where she raised eyebrows by playfully interacting onstage with the African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Then following a brief stint with Woody Herman, she reluctantly signed on with Stan Kenton’s outfit, where she tried valiantly to get him to swing more, as she explains in a hilarious segment. Despite Kenton’s terminally whitebread style, O’Day was able to make silk purses out of his novelty numbers like “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” before striking out on her own.
Unfortunately, O’Day’s life is nearly synonymous with chaos, with her addictions all too public. Arguably, her greatest talent was for getting involved with the wrong men, yet she kept plugging away at the jazz life. She was commencing yet another comeback shortly before her death, with the help of her final manager, Robbie Cavolina, who co-directed the documentary with Ian McCrudden.
We do hear various interviewers ask the requisite questions about drugs and other madness, which she answers honestly and directly. However, true to the jazz ethos, she appears more interested in the present than the dead past. Like O’Day, Cavolina and McCrudden seem more interested in O’Day’s music than the details of her habit, which is quite refreshing.
Too many music documentaries seem to lack confidence in their subjects, giving the audience quick performance sound-bites, only to have talking heads speak over them, telling us how brilliant it is. Here, Cavolina and McCrudden let us listen to many complete performances (or at least complete vocals), including vintage television appearances and rarely seen Japanese concert footage. Of course, they also include her renditions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival immortalized in Bert Stern’s documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.
By putting the spotlight on O’Day’s music, the filmmakers illustrate to the audience why they should care about the vocalist, but they include enough of her ups and downs to establish the dramatic arc of her life. It is a welcome approach I was happy to see for a change. If viewers want to plumb the dark side of her life more they can certainly consult her autobiography High Times, Hard Times, but you will probably know her better through her music, like “Georgia Brown” at Newport, or even “Tears Flowed Like Wine” with Kenton, which does not sound so funny in retrospect (if it ever really did before). Anita O’Day is one of the more enjoyable jazz documentaries I have seen in a while, and I have seen a lot. It opens Friday at Cinema Village in Manhattan.