Anita O’Day The Life of a Jazz Singer
A film by Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden
Executive Producers Nancy Field O’Connor & Caroleen Feeney
Producers Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden, Melissa Davis
Dr. David Boska
John Cameron Mitchell
Mary (Bunny) Sellers
Dr. Billy Taylor
Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden and Melissa Davis together formed AOD Productions to film the story of the great singer’s life.
The catalyst for getting started on the documentary was Anita’s plan to record an album and tour London and Paris, all at the age of 84, and what turned out to be three years before her death.
“It was decided this would a great way to start this film, making the documentary around these two events,” said Cavolina.
Melissa Davis confesses that she didn’t know who Anita O’Day was when she was first asked to get involved. But she listened to the music, read Anita’s autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, and became an enthusiast. “I wanted other people to discover her, as I did, and wanted to help get the film made.”
Nancy O’Connor, widow of actor Carol O’Connor, came aboard as executive producer because she had known Anita in the ‘60s, and had the bitter experience of addiction and alcoholism in her own family. She felt strongly about telling of Anita’s survival, when so many others, including her own son, had not survived.
The film took more than four years to complete, researching archival footage, interviews with Anita, including one on 60 Minutes and interviews that the filmmakers did themselves with the feisty songstress.
Ian McCrudden and Cavolina had worked together on many films over the years, as had Ian with Melissa, so they felt comfortable in their interchangeable roles. Because Robbie and Ian directed, photographed, art directed and edited the film together things took time, but money was saved.
The two men had strengths and weaknesses that complemented each other. Robbie was the expert on Anita O’Day. He had worked with her, managed her career and knew everything about her life. He was an unparalleled resource, according to Ian, who says, “Where I was able to bring something new to the movie was to be able to look at what we shot, consider the interviews, deal with the fact that we didn’t have a script in a constantly evolving piece, and really provide some outside perspective.”
Together they wove a narrative out of more than 100 hours of footage.
The question is often asked, “What is jazz?” Ian and Robbie answered it, in part, by showing Anita singing Let’s Fall In Love in four different performances, in different tempos and different keys.
Did the two directors fight? “We fought about a lot of things, but not about the editing,” said Robbie.
Ian agreed. “Yes, we don’t have problems where the movie’s concerned and the best idea wins. As good friends for a dozen years we understand each other.”
“Artistically we had one rule that I brought to the editing room. If somebody’s making a cut don’t interrupt the cut until it’s ready for playback. There were quite a few happy accidents because of that,” said Robbie.
Cavolina was O’Day’s manager for the last six years of her life. He says that he became manager only by default because of his music connections. They had originally met at the Vine Street Bar and Grill, where she was performing for director Stanley Kramer who was thinking about making a movie on her life. Later, Kramer’s rights expired and Robbie sold everything he could to buy the rights himself.
He describes Anita as “the most fun person, happy-go-lucky, just the kind of person I’ve always looked for in a friend, carefree, a great artist and with a f*** you attitude.”
Unlike so many musical biographies, Anita O’Day, the Life of a Jazz Singer is more of a portrait of an artist and her artistry and less of a salacious biography of drug and alcohol addiction.
“As filmmakers we aspired to show someone who, despite the life that she led, lived through her artistry. And that was the first and most lasting thing that she left behind,” said McCrudden.
Cavolina agreed. “The film shows how her attitude was so completely the opposite of the cliché of the dark and moody and brooding heroine addict.”
The two filmmakers spent a lot of time with Anita just having fun—going to the race track, going to Musso and Frank restaurant in Hollywood, or just hanging out.
“It wasn’t like you just hung out with her because she was the subject of a documentary. She was your pal,” said Ian.
O’Day was someone who understood her impact on music. She knew she was forging new ground because none of the other girl singers of the ‘50s were interpreting bebop. She was on the cutting edge. Yet she was friendly with her contemporaries—singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Kay Starr and particularly June Christie, and she was supportive of their work.
Not only was she a great jazz performer and swing singer. She also had a minor pop career. She introduced The Tennessee Waltz and introduced Via Con Dios, which she gave to Patty Page and Les Paul and Mary Ford.
She only sang songs that had a specific meaning for her with a body of work of about 200 songs.
Ian said that Anita was much more like an athlete than an artist in the way she approached her work—“which meant that she really liked to do it. It was fun, and she played really well and really hard.”
Her career could have been bigger, but she preferred to tour with small combos in little clubs because that’s where the fun was.
Robbie said that Anita loved to walk, and she did so every day of her life, even when she was high on drugs or drinking alcohol, and did two miles a day until she was 85, when she had a minor stroke.
One of the enjoyable things about making the movie was finding some long forgotten footage of Anita performing, perhaps a TV program in Stockholm, and watching it with the octogenarian singer and hearing her critique on the long-ago performance.
Robbie recalled how Anita started singing with the Gene Krupa. The only chart she could sing was Georgia, so for the first few weeks with the band that was the only song she did, for the whole night, changing the tempo, turning the song on its head, but singing it over and over again.
O’Day changed what the girl band singer was. Until she came along a pretty girl in a pretty dress would simply sing the melody and not move. Anita danced, made comments and even did this with black trumpet player, Roy Eldridge, a teaming that was unheard of at that time. Eldridge didn’t like it either. He felt that Anita was upstaging him.
Robbie and Ian have made a very different kind of film about a different kind of singer. As Robbie explained it: “Our film is structured in such a way that it became an improvisational look at her life. There’s a lot of action and motion and color and a lot of visuals. Not only are you getting a story and music, but you’re getting images and colors and feels that were very specific to the album covers, and the graphics that we used were kind of post Bauhaus graphics.”
Ian added that they had found so much footage of her, in some cases four or five versions of her singing a particular song, that they made the editorial decision to try to tell her story through those songs and lyrics.
Anita O’Day Songs
Passages from more than 30 of Anita O’Day’s hit songs are featured in the documentary. They include: Sweet Georgia Brown, A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square, Body and Soul, I Told You I Love Now Get Out, Yesterdays, Boogie Blues, You’d Be so Nice To Come Home To, The Nearness of You, One More Mile, Tabby the Cat, Night Bird, Trav’lin Light, You’re the Top, Four Brothers, Johnny One Note, Angel Eyes, That Old Devil Moon, Ballad of the Sad Young Men, If The Moon Turns Green, Love for Sale, Pick Yourself Up, All of Me Slip of the Lip, Little Girl Blue, Let Me Off Uptown, And Her Tears Would Flow Like Wine, Let’s Fall In Love, Tea For Two and Honeysuckle Rose
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