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Pushing Charlie Parker Into the Shadows

May 15th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Bird 1988 poster Bird DVD

Bird (1988)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Joel Oliansky
Produced by Clint Eastwood
161 minutes

A tone poem on the life and times of jazz innovator Charlie Parker makes such a valiant effort at authenticity, at not being a bad movie, that what’s left feels like virtually no movie at all. A script by actor, playwright and jazz fan Joel Oliansky (who co-wrote and directed the Richard Dreyfuss-Amy Irving melodrama The Competition) had been in development for so long that Richard Pryor was attached to the role of Parker before the superstar comedian’s freebasing accident in 1980. Bird is notable as the first movie about jazz music made by fans of jazz music, of which Oliansky offered that Clint Eastwood had even more ardor for the art form than he did. The end credits dedicate the picture to musicians, but it reads more like an admission of failure than a note of gratitude.

Instead of recreating the world in which Parker lived fast and died young (1920-1955, according to Wikipedia) and perhaps illustrating how he changed that world, Eastwood seems satisfied with simply broadcasting Parker’s music, which the filmmaker reprocessed from unreleased live recordings that were tracked down. Anyone who hasn’t pledged a donation to their public jazz radio station will likely be in the dark, literally. The lighting by Jack N. Green is so murky and the narrative so muddled that after a torturous 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s still not clear where Parker came from, what he did or who the people who knew him were. Spike Lee criticized Bird for focusing on Chan Richardson’s and Red Rodney’s remembrances and pushing Parker into the shadows, but sadly, nothing in this passionate clutter is communicated with the least bit of clarity.

31 Days of Eastwood

In Los Angeles, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker) returns from a gig to his partner Chan Richardson (Diane Verona). Despondent over the death of their daughter as well as his ongoing career problems, Parker swallows a bottle of iodine. Recuperating in a psychiatric hospital, his mind wanders back to his early days in Kansas City, where the young Parker (Damon Whitaker) fares so poorly in a “cutting contest” against Buster Franklin (Keith David) that a drummer tosses a cymbal at the young man’s feet to get him off stage. Unwilling to consent her husband be given shock treatment because it will risk his ability to improvise and compose music, Chan thinks back to when she first met “Bird”, in New York, when she was a footloose jazz fan and he had eclipsed Buster Franklin as a lightning bolt innovator of a new genre called bebop.

Franklin is so dispirited after hearing Parker perform that he dumps his saxophone in a river. But by the time Parker emerges from the hospital, he’s drowning his life. Moving back in time, Parker’s self-destructive binges are contrasted with his bandmate and friend Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright), a trumpeter nowhere near as idolized as Bird, but happily married and never out of work. Parker finds a sidekick in Red Rodney (Michael Zelnicker), a white trumpeter who Parker takes out on the road. Parker’s erratic behavior puts him on the outs with club owners and record labels, until his arrest for heroin possession results in his cabaret license being revoked. He’s swimming in heroin and booze in L.A. when news reaches Parker of his daughter’s death. 34 years young going on 65, Bird never fully recovers.

Bird 1988 Forest Whitaker

Bird 1988 Forest Whitaker

Bird 1988 Forest Whitaker Diane Venora

Bird 1988

Bird 1988 Anna Levine Forest Whitaker

Bird 1988 Diane Venora Forest Whitaker

Bird 1988

Bird 1988 Michael Zelniker Forest Whitaker

Bird 1988 Diane Venora

Bird 1988 Forest Whitaker

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 18 users: 72% for Bird

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 78 for Bird

What do you say?

Tags: Concert · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Midlife crisis · Music

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Yojimbo_5 // May 18, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I think you’re being too harsh with this one. Charlie Parker’s life was lived and his art created in the smokey low-light of the jazz club. He lived the life of every musician—in the night, when the gigs were. Dark and murky? Yeah! That’s when he was doing the stuff he’ll be remembered for.

    Showing how Parker changed the world? How? With variations of Bird’s work by other artists? With a title crawl that says he did? It doesn’t work with music. Never has. It can’t be cinematically expressed—unless you wanna show a little kid doing a “Bird” riff (and how lame is that?),

    The point of the story is: “Bird” was a revered figure in jazz, but nobody would hire him—he couldn’t even play at the club named for him. He was an outsider, shunned by the monied interests, who expected his quick-silver ability to improvise, but on a regular schedule. His fans expected him to be consistent—for them—but he wasn’t. He saw himself as both success and failure simultaneously, and it would be nice to have his side of the story—but he’s dead. What we’ve got…ALL we’ve got…are those recordings. And the Jazz-station donors? I think they’d be disappointed that the movie didn’t go into MORE detail—especially about the studio recordings that are Parker’s legacy—but watching artists make sausage in the studio is usually underwhelming (and always includes a shot of bouncing VU meters).

    It might seem better a couple years down the road. Might…

  • 2 Joe Valdez // May 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Jim: I don’t know anything about Charlie Parker — which is red flag #1 considering I just watched a 2 1/2 hour movie about him — but not every musician’s life makes for a watchable film. Maybe you’re right and there was really no other way to make a movie about his contributions than to just play his music in underlit nightclubs. I think that a documentary would have been a much better idea. Thanks for commenting!

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