Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Joel Oliansky
Produced by Clint Eastwood
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.
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.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 18 users: 72% for Bird
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 78 for Bird
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