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

Documentary captures O'Day's giant artistry as well as her eccentricities and struggle with drugs.

By Robert Koehler / August 30, 2008

Any performer who adopts the stage name of O'Day because it's pig Latin for "dough" is a character of the first order, and "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" is first and foremost about one of the jazz world's supreme characters. Although the documentary is something of a patchwork affair and lacks the late singer's ineffable smoothness and rhythmic brilliance, it emphatically makes the case that here was one of the four or five all-time great female jazz voices – or "song stylists," as she called herself. The sizzle of her longtime addiction to drugs (especially heroin, the drug of choice of her generation) sometimes overwhelms the steak of what O'Day did as a musician. But the film's ace up its sleeve is a marvelous selection of Japanese, Swedish, and American TV clips and a portion from Bert Stern's "Jazz on a Summer's Day," capturing her in Olympian form with a mind-bending version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," and proving her giant artistry better than the dozens of on-screen testimonials. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

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