June 21, 2019

Bird (1988)
Grade: 78/100

Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker

What it's about. A biopic on Charlie Parker (1920-1955), who ranks among the best-known proponents of bebop jazz. Parker (Forest Whitaker) is generally regarded as one of the greatest alto sax players. The emphasis is on the final few years of his life, and features his common-law marriage to Chan (Diane Venora), whose white upper-class East Coast background contrasts with Parker's upbringing in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood.

By this time, Parker has become a household name, at least among those musically hip. But he is beset with problems. He is a heavy drinker, a narcotics addict, who suffers from ulcers, cirrhosis, and heart disease. He is unreliable, missing and quitting gigs, and depression results in a suicide attempt and brief hospitalization.

Nonetheless, Parker's heavy burdens increase his interest as a dramatic figure. Also in the movie are fellow musicians Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright), Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker), and Buster Franklin (Keith David). James Hardy and Sam Robards are Federal narcotics officers circling jazz musicians like sharks. Richard Jeni plays Parker's long-suffering agent. Anna Levine is briefly a love interest.

How others will see it. Bird was a box office failure, and even today has a fairly low 10K user votes at imdb.com. The film's success was limited by a long running time (155 minutes) and its focus on a pre-rock'n'roll performer who had died a third of a century before.

But Eastwood had not made Bird to compete with Ghostbusters II. It was instead an artistic pursuit of his interest in jazz. And it drew considerable attention on the festival circuit, who had previously regarded Eastwood as an actor in westerns and crime dramas, with his best work behind him.

Bird won Best Actor for Whitaker at Cannes, and Best Director for Eastwood at the Golden Globes. It won an Oscar for Best Sound, and was nominated for Best Score by BAFTA. An acclaimed film, indeed, although one overlooked by the general public.

The imdb.com user ratings average 7.2, and peak among women over 45, who grade it 7.6. Women presumably appreciate the presentation of the Chan-Charlie love story.

How I felt about it. Clint Eastwood is famous for many things, including his love of jazz. This love extends to bebop, which trivialized composition and arrangement in favor of improvisation, technique, and spirit. Charlie Parker was a hero of the bebop movement, but it is a matter of taste whether or not he made great recordings.

While history's judgment of Parker is less certain than Eastwood's, there is no denying that Eastwood has directed a few great movies. Bird is not as great as Unforgiven, but it is more impressive than most of Parker's belabored, wandering solos. And it includes genuine Parker music, his alto sax isolated from original recordings. Best of all, the move stars Forest Whitaker, who plays pathos as well as anyone, given that Fredric March has been dead since 1975.

The real Chan Parker's input into the movie ensures that both her and Charlie are always treated sympathetically. They have on-screen drama, but the arguments seem less severe than one might expect, and Parker's philandering is understated. Parker's drug addiction is implied as a relief from declining health, career instability, and family problems such as the terminal illness of his very young daughter. We are never told that throughout Parker's relationship with Chan, he was married to someone named Doris.

Parker comes across less as a musician and more of a personality, someone who loves Chan and sees jazz as a business instead of a calling. But any inaccuracies in the portrayal are made irrelevant by the performances of Whitaker and Venora, who remain compelling throughout. Eastwood takes his time, which rewards us not only in the continuing presence of our leads, but in the unexpected friendship between Parker and his white jewish trumpeter protégé, Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker).