A Great Jazz Singer’s Life on Film Debuts at SFFS at the Sundance Kabuki

Categories: Film

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A line we loved in a recent article in the New York Times: “I like documentaries much more than I like movies.” We know just what they mean, and if you do, too (or even if you don’t), take a gander at Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, the newest offering in the San Francisco Film Society’s programming at the Sundance Kabuki, which opened just last night.

Anita O’Day, who died shortly after the film was completed, was a feisty, hedonistic, adorable, individualistic jazzbo, who jazz critic Leonard Feather classes among the greatest of all time, alongside Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McRae. The four qualities that make a great jazz singer, according to Feather, are the tone and timbre, the individual quality of the voice; phrasing; the choice of accompanying musicians; and the choice of material.

And Anita had them all, in spades. Plus a swell fashion sense: the photo above is from her epochal appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which was filmed by Bert Stern for Jazz on a Summer's Day. She'd purchased the whole black-and-white ensemble the day before, including the perfect ostrich-feather-trimmed hat, on a whim, from a shop right across from her Newport hotel. And the footage of her singing "Sweet Georgia Brown," unforgettably, under the tony topper took her to Time magazine and to Japan, where she toured and recorded for three decades.

In addition, Anita amassed life experience that included rape, jail, and heroin addiction, as Bryant Gumbel announces up top. And as the unrepentant Anita replies: “That’s just the way it went down, Bryant.” A tumultuous life story, interspersed with irresistible vintage footage that really swings. --Meredith Brody

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