To watch Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden's Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is to get a close-up look at the strange alchemy that is jazz singing - singing at its most sublime.
As more than a few of the veteran jazzbos in this fine and lively documentary attest, O'Day was a musician whose instrument was her voice. The movie makes the case that O'Day belongs on the same uppermost tier where Billie Holiday, Etta James and Sarah Vaughan reside.
And despite a life of broken marriages, drinking, smoking (tobacco and otherwise), and heroin addiction, this hardboiled chanteuse outlived her better-known jazz sisters. O'Day - born Anita Belle Colton - died in 2006, at age 87. The filmmakers caught up with their subject just a little before that: O'Day is seen placing bets at the racetrack near her Southern California home, raspily recounting her star-crossed career and, yes, venturing back to New York to perform for a O'Day-adoring throng.
Cavolina and McCrudden's doc is rich with archival concert footage. And O'Day, back in the '40s, '50s and '60s, was one cool kitten: bopping, beaming, and batting her fists like a storm-tossed orchestra conductor. Teamed first with Gene Krupa and then Stan Kenton, and later fronting smaller outfits herself, O'Day cut a swath through smoky boites and rapturous halls in the States, Europe and Japan (where, in the '70s, she enjoyed huge success).
Her rhythmic approach to pop standards and show tunes upended meter and meaning, to glorious effect. There's real joy in O'Day's eyes - and larynx - as she bobs and weaves through an amazing songbook. But it's more than mere joy - it's a recognition that such music provided refuge, and resonance, from a life of cruelty and hardship.
Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden. With Anita O'Day, Jim Gavin, Eddie Locke, Johnny Mandel, John Cameron Mitchell, Annie Ross and George Wein. Distributed by MRI/RED.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.