The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly--and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.
I lit my fire. I greased my skillet.
And I cooked. --Charlie (Yardbird) Parker
Few Hollywood biographical movies have shown more devotion to their subject than Clint Eastwood's "Bird" (citywide).
Taking a hard story--the short, sad life of jazz revolutionary Charlie Parker--Eastwood and his collaborators neither flinch from the dark nor ignore the light. Parker was a player whose alto saxophone rarely failed him even as his world crumbled, and the makers of "Bird" face this contradictory and dazzling man (played by Forest Whitaker) with the pure respect and the keen eye and ear he deserves.
The movie is about song in darkness, joy wrung out of grief. The portrayal of Parker's interracial liaison with his last, common-law wife, Chan (Diane Venora)--one of the subtlest love stories in any recent film--is typical of "Bird's" mix of film noir romanticism and a gutty acceptance of life as it is.
Writer Joel Oliansky has deftly constructed the script along jazz lines. The movie has sustained ballads, ensemble choruses, repeated leitmotifs, occasional orchestral passages, quirky inside gags and impassioned solos. It's a chancy, intricate structure and it becomes, in Eastwood's sure-handed staging, a set of effortless riffs, one memory segueing and dissolving into another.
Three quick snatches of Parker start it up. We see him as a young boy on mule back; then as an eager teen-age amateur, being gonged off the stage during a competitive Kansas City jam session, and last as a triumphant virtuoso, jubilantly blasting through a smoky nightclub. Those images reverberate through "Bird": echoes of poverty, failure, and a success that may lie on a swamp of uncertainty and danger.
The story proper then opens on intense pain: a marital brawl climaxing in Parker's iodine-swallowing suicide attempt. From then on, death sharpening every moment, we slide through the tumble of memories and reflections that accompany Charlie's inexorable downward plunge. The tossed cymbal that marked his Kansas City loss becomes a repeated symbol of doom. We last see it, in a final crazy irony, when Bird dies laughing in the Manhattan apartment of a baroness.
Smack was not the only culprit that crippled the real-life Bird. Racial bigotry, poor health and the music industry also took their toll during his 34 years. What redeems that sad life, and the movie as well, is his tempestuously brilliant music and his inner sweetness. Much of the movie, exaggerated or not, actually happened. We get Parker's breakdowns, heroin addiction, his hounding by police and the whole ambiance of New York's 52nd Street in 1945 (caught in a virtuosic one-take tracking shot by cinematographer Jack Green). We get the jazz bar mitzvah with Parker and men wearing yarmulkes, the four telegrams after the death of his daughter Pree and the wonderfully comic Deep South tour, with Parker's Jewish trumpeter Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker) masquerading as "Albino Red" to fool any hot-tempered bigots.
Equally, and crucially, the music is Parker's. In a superb effort by musical scorer Lennie Niehaus, Bird's original solos, occasionally augmented by Charles McPherson, have been cleaned up and seamlessly blended with new accompaniments. Added to Whitaker's intense miming, we get a chilling illusion of experiencing Bird as he might have sounded in life.
In facing the pits of that life, as well as the grandeur, "Bird" rarely goes queasy or soft. As Parker, the chunky, seraphically boyish Whitaker seems at first almost too youthful and gentle. Yet Whitaker makes the part his own. You can accept him as genius, junkie, man-boy, lost soul, even as Charlie Parker, with familiar moon face and haunted eyes.
As Chan Parker, Diane Venora gives an almost eerily flawless performance. She bracingly captures the postwar pressure cooker of the urban hip underground: the way she drags out the word man , the challenge in her eyes, her flip rejoinders and punchy cracks, her dry contemplative flirting, even the way she casually curls up on a dusty chair, tucking her legs up under like two hidden, lethal swords. The other actors, including Zelniker as the puckish Rodney, Sam Wright as Dizzy Gillespie (somewhat more sober than we'd expect of the bubbly Diz) and Hamilton Camp as the hustling "Mayor" of 52nd Street, hit the same high standard.
Clint Eastwood's previous directorial efforts have been under-appreciated by critics. His previous best, "The Outlaw Josey Wales," was written and partially directed by Phil Kaufman. But it's the relatively neglected, offbeat '80s works, the gentle "Bronco Billy" and the wistfully sad "Honkytonk Man," that prefigure "Bird." And "Bird," with its mix of tricky structure, faultless rhythm and movingly spontaneous performances, may reveal him most. It defines Eastwood's mixed viewpoint. He's a sort of hipster traditionalist, outwardly salty with an inwardly tender core.
For some, "Bird" (MPAA-rated R for language, drug use) will be too long, too dark, too complicated, too sad. Some non-jazz fans, unwilling to meet it halfway, may find the ground too alien. But like Bird's own nickname, which came originally from his huge appetite for chicken (or "yardbird") and later memorialized his birdlike saxophone flights, it squeezes poetry from the mundane. In this movie and its hot, fast bursts of bop, Charlie Parker gets a fitting elegy. As we watch, a life opens like a slit vein. The smoke curls. The sax cuts. The song pours out. Bird lives.
A Warner Bros. presentation of a Malpaso production. Producer/director Clint Eastwood. Script Joel Oliansky. Executive producer David Valdes. Camera Jack Green. Production design Edward Carfagno. Editor Joel Cox. Music score Lennie Niehaus. With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).