Movies about music and musicians are a dicey proposition at best. So many of them fall flat. I mean, how often have you watched one and said to yourself “gee there’s so and so pretending they are so and so.” In other words it is hard to suspend disbelief when you are watching something with so much sub-context. We all have such strong impressions of musicians and what they must be like outside of the spotlight that depictions of them often feel wrong or off somehow. The music side of it complicates things further when an actor clearly is not a player and their fingering or the way they hold the instrument looks phony. Of course nothing is worse than the director just not getting the musician and whitewashing the facts of his or her life to make them more palatable for the masses. Clint Eastwood’s Bird avoids all these pitfalls and in the process captures the era beautifully and presents Forest Whittaker as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker was a complicated man; sublimely talented and highly intelligent he was also tortured by feelings of inadequacy, driven to suicide attempts by crippling bouts of depression and victimized by the twin assaults of racism and drug addiction. He was introduced to heroin as a teenager and the junkie life defined his fate for the rest of his life. Eastwood’s movie focuses on all the right stuff. First and foremost it completely gets the music right. Forest Whittaker clearly studied Parker as his body language and handling of the saxophone are spot-on. After only a few minutes my disbelief was suspended and I felt as though I was watching Charlie Parker himself, not an actor portraying him. The soundtrack utilizes original Parker recordings mixed with modern musicians, which give them both authenticity and modern production values. Thus it all sounds correct, and of the times. One really gets a feeling for Parker’s ability to solo and improvise, and how his unique style built upon his influences and revolutionized all jazz soloists who followed him. Most specifically, Parker’s profound influence on a young Red Rodney (real name: Robert Chudnick) played with wide-eyed innocence by Michael Zelniker is explored to great effect. Rodney comes to Bird as an acolyte, desperate to just be near the man, but ends up playing with him and following him down the road of heroin addiction. The other major relationships explored are those with his long suffering wife Chan Parker and fellow bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Parker was irresistible because of his overwhelming talent, but at the same time he was unreliable in every way. He was often too stoned or drunk to play, he womanized constantly and he hurt all those closest to him. Gillespie (played by Samuel E. Wright) is his friend, mentor and champion yet he recognized Parker’s tragic flaws and didn’t make excuses for them. In one pivotal scene the two men stand by the ocean discussing their fate and Gillespie tells Parker “If they kill me (white society) it won’t be because I helped them do it.” He is referring to Parker’s own self-destructive behavior, which he can’t seem to curtail and rightly predicts Parker’s sad fate. Dizzy loves to play with Bird, but sees him as the tragic mess he is. Diane Venora plays Chan Parker as a very modern woman who is trapped by her love for a guy she can clearly see is no good for her. Yet, they marry (her white, he black and all that went with that in our society in the mid 20th century), have children, and try to forge some sort of domestic happiness. It is heartbreaking to watch, because it is so clear that he is not up to the task. He can’t keep his instrument out of hock, so how is he supposed to provide for a wife and kids?
The real power of Eastwood’s accomplishment comes in the constant juxtaposition of Parker’s golden talent with the clay and mud of his day-to-day life: he was hounded by police trying to shake down a junkie, he was disapproved of for fraternizing with white women and he was constantly out of work because of his unreliability. But then, Eastwood shows many scenes of Parker onstage, using his horn to soothe the savage beast that raged within his soul. Jumping around in Bird’s history, Eastwood manages to keep the thread of time clear even as we go from scenes of a young Parker learning his trade and being humiliated by his inadequacies, to a man at the height of his powers, knocking the jazz world on its ear with his mind-blowing improvisations, to a washed up has-been who doesn’t understand the new world of showboating rock and rollers, all in no particular order. Unstuck in time, the movie weaves a majestic tapestry that gives one a sympathetic understanding of Parker’s brief 34-year life. The greatness of his talent is clear, the depth of his junkie depravity is clear and by the end of the movie these two factors merge to offer a startlingly honest and compelling portrait of one of the greatest musicians who ever graced a stage. Bird is that rare artistic accomplishment that makes one confront the uncomfortable truths that surround the creative process. Often the angels that give one his inspiration come hand-in-hand with the devils that rob him of his talent.
- Paul Epstein