Despite being considered one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Anita O’Day remains far less known than fellow luminaries Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, the two performers to whom she is frequently compared in Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. O’Day’s life seems straight out of a Hollywood biopic, complete with important childhood injury (the loss of her uvula, which resulted in her trademark staccato singing style) and destructive heroin addiction, but the woman herself is far more interesting than whatever wannabe starlet would play her. It is this loving focus on the personality of its subject that keeps Life of a Jazz Singer out of the realm of dull biography.
As a work of cinema, the film is merely passable. Co-directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden play with color fields and segment the screen like a less outré The Tracey Fragments; these touches occasionally give the film a jazzy liveliness, but for the most part Life of a Jazz Singer isn’t noticeably different from an A&E special. As an educational document, it’s a little more effective—its parade of facts and interviews probably won’t be anything new to fans, but for a jazz-ignorant square like myself it was fairly fascinating—but as a tribute to its star, it’s damn near essential. Interviews taken before O’Day’s death in 2006 are intercut with rare performance footage, and there’s something deeply moving about the knowledge that O’Day was more or less the same joyous force of nature at 87 as she was at 21, responding to an interviewer’s accusatory questions about her drug abuse with a laugh and an exclamation that “that’s just the way it went down.”