Earlier this week I caught two films within 24 hours of each other that had some intersting points of comparison. The first was Gus Van Zant's Milk, about the first openly gay person to win elective office in the US and starring Sean Penn in the title role. The other was the documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden. The first is an intense and virtually flawless in terms of performance, narrative power, and core message and deserves to stand with other earnest civil rights dramas produced over the years that compelled audiences (especially American audiences) to recognize that the basic values of freedom and democracy are meaningless without a true commitment to equality as well. In other words, it is a noble and even "important" film that deserves all the accolades it has received, and likely will continue to receive throught he awards season. But I liked the Anita O'Day picture much more, not least because it makes many of the same points (from a much less obvious starting point) as Milk, and does so in a more invigorating way (at least to me).
As a documentary, Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, might lead most viewers to expect something akin to the usual PBS American Masters special-- lots of archival footage intercut with talking heads, laying out a pretty straightforward account of the subject's life. But that is not the way the movie is set up, although it certainly contains those elements. The filmmakers decided to convey something critical about O'Day's story through the design and editing of their shots in a manner that I don't recall seing before. There is a visual rhythm that approximates O'Day's unique style of phrasing when she sings (which is commented on by a number of the aforementioned talking heads). The interviews with O'Day herself, which span the entirety of her long career reveal an artist totally at ease with herself and self-deprecating about her talent, and again, the visual style of the film seems to reinforce that easygoing attitude. It creates the appearance of swinging breeziness; but, if you stop to think about it, you realize how much thought and craft have gone into achieving the effect. That quality only fades in a couple of instances, when the film portrays a full song performance (as opposed to the much more numerous clips) by Miss O'Day, with the climax coming with her rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" as it appeared in the 1960 concert documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day. At that point, there's no mistaking the artistry of this performer.
I mentioned that the film also shares some thematic qualities with Milk, which it does in segments on O'Day's relationships with black musicians and in tracking the expectaions on a "girl" singer in a predominately male milieu. But it does so in a much more subtle way than Milk, and while I really don't mean this as any kind of criticism of the Van Zant picture, I think it allows for Anita O'Day to present a much more well-rounded portrait of its subject. But I'm splitting hairs here-- try to see both and I doubt either will disappoint.
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