“So you saying Diz and Duke on one side and junkies on the other. So I kick [fellow musician laughs] I can kick! [more laughter].”
The best story I ever heard about Charlie Parker, played here by Forest Whitaker, was in Miles Davis’ autobiography and involved a taxi cab ride with Bird, a naked woman, an entire fried chicken, and a bottle of hard liquor. When a young innocent Miles protested about being privy to Parker’s three course meal, the master saxophone player suggested that perhaps Davis would feel more comfortable if he just stuck his head out the window while Bird partook. Sadly, this story is nowhere to be found in Clint Eastwood’s long dark elegy to genius in the face of crippling heroin addiction.
The sad thing about biographical films is that they are expensive, and it is assumed that once a story is told that an audience’s appetite has been whetted. Thus if someone like Clint Eastwood tries to pay tribute to one of his heroes, it usually precludes anyone else from ever tackling the subject. I mean who can fault Clint Eastwood for wanting to make a movie about Charlie Parker? It’s cool that someone with his power got the thing done, but you have to think that perhaps the story might have been a little better had a black film maker like Spike Lee taken it on. I don’t particularly want to weigh in on the whole issue of Black artists having a right to Black stories, but you have to wonder if the key to this story really resides in Parker’s relationships with two White women, and White trumpeter Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker) instead of with Black artists like the omitted Davis and the little seen Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright). It’s pretty entertaining to see Parker playing a Bar Mitzvah, but is his tour of the West Coast really that important outside of the fact that it was when Clint got to see him play. From the movie you’d think Bird never touched a Black woman much less was married to a couple.
The 40’s Bebop scene must have been fascinating with artists like Charlie Christian, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Gillespie jamming at a different club every night and inventing the future. It was so amazing that it induced Miles Davis to leave his day gig at Julliard because he felt there was more to learn in the New York clubs at night. According to Miles, Parker’s playing when he was on was enough to make a man believe in God. He claims seeing Parker and Gillespie play together changed his life, but there are no scenes in Bird that really show the two giants interacting musically on the same stage. When Gillespie is shown playing, Parker is in the back getting high.
There are two enjoyable scenes in this movie showing Parker’s musical development. First he is shown being played off a stage early in his career at an open mike cutting contest by a fictional composite sax player named Buster Franklin. Then we see them again eight years later in a New York club with Parker at the top of his game. Franklin is now so blown away by “Charlie from just around’s” playing that he tosses his own instrument into the river. This is fun and does a good job of making you sit up and take notice of Parker’s talents, but where did it come from? How did Parker go from being a hack to an unbelievable virtuoso? Did he make a deal with the devil like Robert Johnson did? Whitaker has a nice moment where he tries to explain his moment of inspiration, but that is the type of thing that should have been at the center of the movie instead of a just a sidebar.
Whitaker also has an effective scene where he tries to tell Red Rodney that Heroin isn’t the secret to his sound. According to Miles Davis, Parker was a great guy when he was sober, but a huge, ornery, and irresponsible nightmare when he was hopped up. There were nights where rather than being able to move mountains Parker could barely play. It’s tough to show someone’s dark side when you want to honor a man’s genius. Eastwood shows a Parker that is haunted by his boyhood addiction, and shows off the innumerable people who loved his talent who were let down by him time and again. The film is much more about his heroin addiction than it is about his music. There are tons of heroin addicts. The music is the reason this guy should be on screen. Almost all of Bird concerns Parker on the decline.
The story is told in weird Tarantino order which makes it sort of swinging and poetic, but confuses things and makes it almost impossible to get to know what Parker was all about. You see the guy taken to a mental institution before you get to see him at anywhere near his peak. When the movie should be cementing his greatness, it is instead spent showing Diane Venora trying to convince doctors that their patient is a great and significant musician and not just an everyday junkie. Charlie Parker had to have had more good times than this. I’m not saying this period of his life isn’t worth relaying, but now it’s almost impossible for anyone to make a movie about his earlier more romantic periods.
Bird is a noble effort by Eastwood. The film is beautifully though darkly shot and has a ton of nice period detail that conveys a decent if not definitive slice of swinging ‘40’s New York’s glory. I mean a case can be made that these were some of the coolest cats of all time, but there isn’t nearly enough evidence of it here despite the film’s length. The music was handled with the utmost care to both preserve Parker’s playing while providing all the muscle of modern recording techniques. Eastwood, in a controversial move, took Parker’s original recordings and had everything but Parker’s playing redone by modern musicians in an attempt to improve on the sound quality of the originals. The music is fine, but doesn’t this reliance on his existing recordings deny the power of improvisation that Bebop is supposed to be all about? Where are the late night jam sessions? Forest Whitaker is the perfect guy to play Parker, Diane Venora is hotly sympathetic to Parker’s genius as his last wife Chan, and Eastwood’s intentions are pure and golden, but Bird is a solid base hit on a hanging curve ball that should have been knocked well out of the Park. It’s a powerful Heroin parable, but it could have been so much more.