Near the beginning of Anita O'Day: The Life of a Music Legend, a 2007 documentary that begins its local run today, then-Today host Bryant Gumbel is heard interviewing the venerable jazz vocalist. "Your personal experiences include rape, abortion, jail, heroin addiction " he says, only to be interrupted by O'Day responding with matter-of-fact casualness. "That's just the way it went down, Bryant," she says.
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The film that follows isn't perfect, in part because this intriguing tease doesn't entirely pay off: Directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden detail O'Day's addiction and stint in jail, but fail to explore the other elements Gumbel mentions in a meaningful way. Moreover, the film is presented as a tribute to a still-vigorous legend, even though O'Day died at age 87 in November 2006 -- a fact that's shared in a brief acknowledgement at the end of the closing credits. And yet these issues are outweighed by the pleasures offered by performance and interview clips featuring O'Day during various stages of her long, eventful life. Although she's not as well remembered as vocal contemporaries such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, she proves every bit their equal in beguiling sequences drawn from sources including the 1959 doc Jazz on a Summer's Day. Just as important is her vivacious, hyperkinetic personality. Her final album, released just months before her death, was called Indestructible!, and while that proved to be wishful thinking, the illuminating beauty of her singing in her prime seems unlikely to dim.
Anita O'Day: The Life of a Music Legend unspools at 4:40, 7:10 and 9:20 p.m. tonight at Starz FilmCenter in the Tivoli and continues through June 5. Tickets range from $6 to $9.50. Find out more at 303-595-3456 or www.denverfilm.org.
May 23-June 12, 2008