Anita O'Day. Yesterday, my dear friend Helene took me off to see Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, a documentary that first screened at New York's Tribeca Film Festival last year. The 90-minute film currently is showing at Cinema Village for a limited period, so if you're in New York, go quick. Helene is a fabulous interior designer, so she has a golden eye for beauty and all things classic and fine. She's also a huge Anita O'Day fan, as am I.
While the film had a clutch of shortcomings, all were fairly minor compared to the lustrous job that directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden did weaving together rare concert footage, candid TV interviews and their own one-on-one conversations with O'Day before her death in 2006. The film succeeds wildly at showcasing O'Day's art and exploring her near-reckless commitment to jazz and the jazz life. The film also boldly deals with O'Day's long-term affair with heroin.
Ultimately, this is a film about a free-spirited, courageous artist who gave up everything that most people cherish to put herself repeatedly in harm's way for the chance to sing and swing. Her passion for jazz and unrestrained joy are intoxicating. You can't take your eyes off of her, and no matter how big an O'Day fan you are, you leave this film fully realizing she was even more significant than you originally thought. While many of the interview subjects put her on par with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, in truth her only artistic rival in the depth department was Billie.
The movie's shortcomings? Strangely, there was little effort to treat this film as a biography. So you never know what year is being discussed or how old O'Day is at any given point along the way. Also, despite seemingly limitless time with O'Day, the interviewers never explore what propelled her to give up so much for jazz. We are grateful for her sacrifice, but we never get a sharp sense of why or what drove her.
Given what O'Day went through (rape, abortions, arrest, imprisonment, etc), the story here clearly is about a woman who was emotionally defenseless and impervious to personal risk or fear. Jazz and artistic expression were all that mattered to O'Day. Only Bryant Gumbel at one point in a TV interview clip managed to push O'Day beyond the 100-watt smile and wise cracks, extracting a taste of her steely resolve. After Bryant asks her repeatedly why she made the choices she did, O'Day snaps matter-of-factly with a glint of impatient anger in her eyes, "That's just the way it went down, Bryant."
There's also little here in the way of a real story. As a result, we wind up hearing the same general themes over and over again, just told by different talking heads. By contrast, 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris was more engaging and captivating. That's because director Raymond De Felitta had a perspective going in and fearlessly went after it ("Why was singer Jackie Paris' career cut short and how did the American Dream elude someone so talented and well-regarded?"). I wish some type of angle was used here ("Why did a woman give up so much personally for art and refuse to compromise?"). We see the sparkling spirit but never quite discover where the pain lived.
Lastly, the Anita O'Day directors allowed several errors to wriggle in. Gary McFarland didn't die of an overdose, as O'Day states; someone slipped methadone into his drink in 1971 at a New York bar and he suffered a fatal heart attack. Also, O'Day in January 1952 wasn't quite the first singer Norman Granz signed to the Verve label, as O'Day claims. Verve officially started in 1956, absorbing Granz' earlier labels Norgran and Clef. Billie Holiday had been singing for Granz' various labels since 1945 as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic.
But these are nitpicks and quibbles. You come away from a big-screen showing of Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer wide-eyed and with a renewed sense of O'Day's
genius. You also wind up feeling great. The directors have created a monumental look at one of America's greatest jazz singers, complete with rare concert footage and interviews that blow you away. O'Day defined hip and all but invented the slick chick personae that would be adapted by dozens of female singers who followed, from June Christy to Madonna. She also was a tragic-comic artist, which makes her endearing and frightening. You wish you knew her but at the same time you're glad you didn't. And like Peggy Lee, O'Day was a world-class actor and a blast to watch, probably because she was having so much fun.
Woody Allen. On Friday, my wife and I went off to see Woody Allen's new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. There's no jazz played in the film or on the soundtrack, and the movie has nothing to do with jazz. Yet Allen's screenplay is so artfully written and beautifully paced that the lines come off like Lester Young solos. The dialogue is remarkable, and you wind up swept away by the delivery by Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. It's as if the four actors were in a verbal quartet. When you see this film, pay particular attention to the cadence of the writing. The interplay is pure jazz.
Blues in the Night. Last week I ordered up a quirky jazz-themed DVD from Netflix called Blues in the Night (1941). Directed by Anatole Litvak, the pre-war film depicts a group of naive white jazz musicians and a girl singer struggling to make it and the hard-won optimism needed to sustain their drive and harmony. The story is a little frayed, but the film's soul is grand, and you get to see a cameo by the Jimmie Lunceford band.
Nat Adderley. Bret Primack's latest video documentary for Concord Records supports the label's re-release of Nat Adderley's Work Song. As always, Bret [pictured] makes superb use of his interview time with producer Orrin Keepnews. He also includes part of a terrific TV interview conducted with Nat Adderley in which Nat opened up about his softening career following his brother Cannonball's death in 1975. Bret again has done a masterful job of compressing the album's back story into a few minutes. I wish all record labels would tap Bret for similar projects (calling Mosaic Records). In the video age, such a visual document is essential for marketing, education and entertainment.