Before Clint Eastwood became a household name as a director with such hits as Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters From Iwo Jima, he brought us Bird, which pays tribute to one of the greatest artists in a genre of music close to Eastwood’s heart. Charlie “Bird” Parker, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists who ever lived, is brought to life by Forest Whitaker in a performance which not only demonstrates Parker’s brilliance, but shows us his tragic life, and the demons he could never fully rid himself of. Although this series of movie reviews is about Oscar winners, it is worth noting that in addition to the Oscar Bird won for Best Sound, it also won several other prominent awards such as Best Director at the Golden Globes, Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, and Best Actress Diane Venora as Parker’s wife, Chan, by the New York Film Critics.
Charlie Parker was one of the most prominent jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s, and along with Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, and most prominently in the movie, Dizzy Gillespie, helped to usher in the era of bebop. This was a different kind of jazz which emphasized improvisation, a fast tempo, and a willingness to stray from basic melodies. Parker was one of those musicians who was ahead of his time, and while he had a following, was only fully appreciated by the other brilliant artists within his industry. While his musical brilliance is indisputable, Parker also had an addiction to drugs and alcohol which brought about several health problems which would follow him throughout his adult life. These health problems finally caught up with him, ending his life, due to a heart attack, at the young age of 34.
Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Charlie Parker is brilliant. This is no surprise to anyone who has seen Whitaker’s Oscar winning performance in The Last King of Scotland, but in Bird his acting prowess is displayed in a different way. He shows us the many sides of Parker including passionate musician, tender yet cold husband, drug addict, friend, musical genius, alcoholic, loving yet cold father, and irresponsible businessman. The transition between each of these dimensions is absolutely seamless as Whitaker gives us Charlie Parker as a man who, although a brilliant musician, could never overcome the addictions he picked up as a young man. Any time it seemed as though he was heading in the right direction with his music, life, and family, drugs or alcohol would bring him into their grasp and pull him back. As Charlie Parker’s wife, Chan, Diane Venora perfectly captures not only the love she felt for him, but also the sadness and frustration which filled her life due to his unfortunate decisions.
You don’t have to love jazz in order to love Bird, however, if you do, it would be hard not to find yourself tapping your feet during the performance scenes when Parker is performing in clubs and on the road. The movie not only pays tribute to the life of an incredible musician, but also to a period of time when jazz and jazz clubs were among the most popular forms of entertainment. We are introduced to Dizzy Gillespie, played by Samuel Wright, who was also one of the kings of bebop, as well as one of Charlie Parker’s best friends, who futiley tried to help Parker overcome his addictions. Also prominent in Bird is trumpeter Red Rodney, played by Michael Zelniker, who becomes a good friend of Parker while performing with him on the road and in clubs. It is obvious when watching the movie that Clint Eastwood not only loves jazz, but is celebrating the genre in his movie.
Some people don’t care for Bird because they don’t think it celebrates his music enough, doesn’t show his development into the legendary saxophone player he became, and focuses too much on his weaknesses. True, it would have been nice to see Parker’s childhood experiences and some more of his famous performances. While these arguments are valid, however, I think it is necessary to look at Bird as a movie that shows us the humanity of Charlie Parker as well as his greatness. And even though his weaknesses are front and center, his brilliance as a musician is also prominently displayed; thus I think we come away from Bird with a greater understanding of Charlie Parker as a complete person, both strengths and weaknesses.
Bird is a bit long at 160 minutes, but don’t let this stop you from watching it. Its appeal is not only to jazz lovers, but also to those who enjoy a good biopic, excellent acting, and a moving story.
Rated R – 160 Minutes