Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer DVD

DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: DVD Revisits Career of Recently-Deceased Jazz Great

Born in a broken home in Chicago in 1919, Anita Belle Colton had such a rough childhood that she ran away from home in her early teens. Initially, she supported herself by entering contests on the dance marathon circuit which was the rage all across the country during the 1930s. When she tired of this line of work, she started singing professionally at the tender age of 16.
Blessed with a velvety voice which might be best described as a cross of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, she changed her name to Anita O’Day by the time she began touring with big bands led by Gene Krupa amd Stan Kenton. But she really only came into her own upon the demise of the Swing Era, which is when she started leading her own bebop combos.
O’Day truly flourished in the 1950s, and was the first vocalist signed by Verve Records. She probably peaked professionally at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival where her legendary performance eclipsed those of many of her contemporaries with household names. Unfortunately, the reason why Anita’s never became as well known had to do with her wreck of a personal life, a miserable existence marked by a 20-year addiction to heroin and alcohol, rape, a couple of failed marriages, and stints behind bars for drug possession.
All of the above is chronicled in Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, a warts-and-all bio-pic directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden. The film features concert and offstage footage of O’Day from as far back as the 1940s all the way up to shortly before her death due to complications from pneumonia in 2006.
What is most remarkable about the very accessible subject of this appealing documentary is how resilient she proved to be in the face of neverending adversity. She survived even as narcotics and booze were consuming the futures of so many of her equally-strung out colleagues in the industry, guys like Charlie Bird Parker, her young arranger Gary McFarland, and later her drummer, John Poole, the man who first introduced her to mainlining smack.
Nonetheless, this music-oriented treat is made memorable by the phenomenal musical interludes of O’Day doing what made her famous forever, those moments of sheer genius when she reinterprets assorted jazz standards, making them her own by employing an engaging mix of mood, tone, phrasing, scatting and raw emotion. Blue eyed soul at its very best!

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 90 minutes
Studio: Elan Entertainment/Red Distribution
DVD Extras: 90 minutes of interviews and uninterrupted bonus performances.

To purchase a copy of Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, visit:

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