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MOVIE REVIEW

A good look at (and listen to) O'Day

August 22, 2008|Sheri Linden | Special to The Times

The great Anita O'Day, tough cookie and sublime jazz vocalist, receives a fitting tribute in this exuberant documentary, completed shortly before her death in 2006 at 87. Alive with improvisational energy and rejecting the conventional biographical format, the film pursues ideas and feelings rather than chronology as it scats through an archival wealth of interviews with O'Day and some of her most inspired performances.

Friends and colleagues weigh in too and impresario George Wein, at whose Newport Jazz Festival O'Day delivered a transcendent and legendary performance. Dressed for high society tea, she turned "Sweet Georgia Brown" into a smoldering epiphany. Although she never reached the same level of fame as they did, O'Day's talent put her in the echelon of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. She was the first artist signed to Verve, played the Apollo and got a mention in "On the Road."

Directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden acknowledge the freeing effect of heroin on her art as well as the physical and psychic cost of her addiction. But they don't moralize or attempt to construct a confessional narrative -- as Bryant Gumbel vainly tries to do in a priceless exchange excerpted here.

Using stylized design elements, they sometimes get too busy. But their approach can be a triumph, as when a split screen showcases four renditions of "Let's Fall in Love." Throughout, O'Day's resilience, humor, smarts and mystery shine bright.

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"Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At the Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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