Judge Clark Douglas was once a famous jazz singer. Then he woke up and realized it was just a dream.
"Is it jazz? Is that what it is? I just do what I do; whatever they want to call it is fine by me."
I consider myself a casual fan of jazz (by which I mean that I enjoy all sorts of jazz but generally can't keep up in a conversation with people who really know their way around the genre). I had heard of Anita O'Day, but really knew very little about her before checking out this documentary. It's Anita's fault, really. Numerous esteemed colleagues and music critics declare without reservation that Anita had one of the great jazz voices. She is regarded as an equal to the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. There is a certain awestruck respect in the voices of those who speak about her gifts as a musician. I would guess that most of you are familiar with Holiday and Fitzgerald, but odds are considerably slimmer that you know Anita O'Day. This film offers a portrait of a woman who was constantly matching her talent with self-destructive tendencies.
A large portion of the footage seen here comes from fairly recent television interviews with O'Day that took place shortly before she passed away in 2006. I suppose that's inevitable, considering that so many aspects of O'Day's life were not television-friendly when she was in her prime. Anita speaks with refreshing frankness and honesty about everything. She is not a modest woman, but she is an honest one. She is reasonably convinced that she's one of the greatest things that ever happened to the world of jazz, and there are plenty of folks in this film who seem willing to agree with that assertion. However, she speaks as easily and openly about her drug addiction and relationship problems as she does about her moments of glory. It is said that O'Day was not a particularly public figure. After seeing her in this film, I wonder whether she was withheld from the public by those who knew she could not be contained in a media-friendly promotional package.
Anita O'Day was perhaps at a disadvantage to begin with, considering that she had her uvula removed in a misguided childhood operation. As a result, she was not able to maintain any sort of natural vibrato. O'Day just rolled with the punches and picked songs that were more suited to her limitations. She often selected fast, snappy, verbose numbers that allowed her to glide through the lyrics without stopping. She didn't ask for sympathy, which is just as well because she didn't need it. Vibrato or not, she was knocking most other female jazz singers out of the park with her effortlessly snazzy performances.
In the life stories of most 20th Century musicians, drugs will inevitably turn up somewhere. Though O'Day spent six months in prison due to possession of marijuana, she insists that she was never really into dope all that much. She would sample something every now and then, but her behavior was not that of an addict. That was before she went to prison. Afterwards, she discovered heroin, and it was mostly downhill from there. Why "mostly?" As O'Day and other jazz aficionados quietly admit, sometimes heroin and jazz do tend to work together quite well. Anita insists that many of her finest musical moments (including her famous rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown") occurred while she was under the influence of heroin. Even so, the drug pulled her into an increasingly despondent spiral of addiction, eventually bringing her career to a halt. The drug use grew worse and worse throughout the 1960s, with multiple overdoses (including one that led to O'Day being erroneously pronounced dead in 1968).
By the time Anita finally cleaned up in the early 1970s, her days of potential stardom had finally closed. Her prime had passed her by while she was getting high. Sure, she had the critical respect of those who knew what raw talent she possessed, but her behavior more or less ensured that she would never become the sort of household name Fitzgerald and Holiday were. Unlike Billie Holiday (an even more tragic story), O'Day was unable to maintain both her career and her self-destructive lifestyle simultaneously for very long. She was a very independent woman, and as a result didn't really have anyone to support her during the truly tough times. Her marriages were quick failures, as were all of the non-marital relationships. O'Day considers her greatest relationship success to be keeping John Poole as her drummer for some 30 years. Even in that instance, Poole and O'Day were largely united by their mutual love of heroin.
Still, it would seem that O'Day never really felt she needed anybody. If she didn't develop strong attachments with many individuals, she certainly did love her fans. She didn't start singing because she wanted to be star. When she was young, she said, "I want to sing so I can bring pleasure all the people in the world." For her, success in the studio or on the stage was success in life. She was a jazz singer. That took priority over everything else. We see an interview conducted by Bryant Gumbel, who marvels over O'Day's controversial life. "Your life story involves rape, failed relationships, drugs, multiple abortions," he says suggestively, obviously attempting to get some sort of reaction from O'Day. She gives him a frustrated sigh and says, "That's just the way it went down, Bryant."
For her, these were the necessary sacrifices of life. She did what she needed to do to keep singing and keep moving. Nothing would hold her down. She kept taking heroin because of what it was doing for her singing, and she eventually stopped taking it for the same reason. The film is entitled Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. Many people dislike the idea of being defined by their careers, but it wasn't so much a career for O'Day as a lifestyle. She was a jazz singer. When life tried to get in the way of that, she threw a middle finger at life and kept going. Whether or not you think she did the right thing, she did exactly what she intended to do. This is a very compelling story, regardless of whether you know anything at all about jazz.
It's kind of difficult to talk about the transfer with films like this, considering that we're dealing with a variety of stock footage for the most part. Some of it's terrible, some of it's good. It doesn't really matter, since this is largely a talking heads piece featuring occasional snips of concerts (most of which, frankly, are in rough shape). Audio is similarly all over the map. Most of the music is solid enough, but not quite as sharp as you might expect from a music-themed documentary. I was very disappointed with the non-anamorphic transfer, but low-budget films like this frequently get such treatment on DVD. Extras include some 90+ minutes of interview outtakes and additional music performances, in addition to a very nice booklet offering more details on O'Day's life and career.
I liked the way Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer allows the facts and the statements to sit side-by-side uncomfortably. Read the statistics, and odds are you will consider O'Day's life a miserable failure. Listen to O'Day, and you will probably consider it a tale of bold triumph. It left me with mixed feelings in a good way. Give it a look.
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