Glamorous, hipper than hip, with a sensationally smooth voice and what seems like an endless sense of the groove, Anita O’Day, who died in 2006 at age 87, was probably America’s greatest white jazz singer. If nothing else, this documentary proves that she belongs up there in the pantheon with Ella and Lady Day, and makes no bones about the fact that her life was as messy and filled with tragedy as the great Billie Holiday’s.

A real ball of fire who even in her 80s seemed to throw off more energy than a nuclear power station, O’Day broke into the business as a big-band singer with Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton, then struck out on her own as a jazz vocalist. At that she was a marvel, a master of phrasing and scat-singing, but also known for her forceful personality and alluring appearance. All this is evident in the film’s numerous performance clips, some of which—like her eccentric reading of “Sweet Georgia Brown” in the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day—are utterly without precedent, and artistically flawless.

But O’Day had her demons, foremost among them a drug habit that lasted for nearly 15 years, which only ended when she nearly died from an overdose. She was also married twice, served a brief stint in jail on a marijuana bust, and had a love for the bottle. Ironically, none of this seemed to bring her career to a halt; she was even billed at one time as the “Jezebel of jazz,” and admits in the documentary that her various busts only helped her get more club bookings.

Filled with reminiscences from musical colleagues like Billy Taylor, Annie Ross, Margaret Whiting and composer Johnny Mandel, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is a wonderfully complete portrait of a complex, talented and charismatic woman. But it certainly doesn’t shy from the sordid aspects of her life, even though in a number of interviews over the years O’Day is seen cheerily blowing away her past troubles with a chuckle and a smile. One of the most interesting clips in the film, in fact, is when O’Day, obviously not happy at the way a young Bryant Gumbel is probing into her life choices, snaps at him, “That’s the way it went down, Bryant!”
All this becomes irrelevant, of course, every time O’Day mounts the stage and sings. Whether it’s at a Swedish nightclub, scat-singing with Les Brown and his Band of Renown, or fronting an all-Japanese big band during a tour of Nippon, O’Day’s lyrical readings, expressive face and boundless energy are a wonder to behold. Anyone who watches this film will want to rush out and buy as many O’Day CDs as possible.