Film Score: Lennie Niehaus Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker and Samuel E. Wright
Bird, about the life of Charlie Parker, was a lot like being introduced to bebop for the first time--while I couldn’t say I fully enjoyed it, I knew it was good. It just took me a while to understand why. For many people the flashbacks within flashbacks of Joel Oliansky’s screenplay can be a little confusing, like a narrative full of Russian nesting dolls. But in the thirty years since it first appeared, the film has taken on the same level of profound greatness for me that bebop eventually did. Oliansky had wanted to make the film as early as 1970, but it wouldn’t be until Eastwood came onboard that the project could gain enough traction to actually get made. He does a magnificent job of conveying the essence of Parker’s life without resorting to a chronologic telling, circling around and around in time like a great jazz solo. The film is dark, literally and figuratively, a challenge successfully taken up by cinematographer Jack Green, reflecting the milieu of the jazz world and also the tragedy that was Parker’s life. As a musician he was one of America’s musical geniuses, dying at the age of thirty-four, almost the same age as Mozart when the great composer died. Fortunately it was Clint Eastwood who finally put that life on film in a way that is as much an homage to the music as it is the man.
Like a novel, the film opens with the famous quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Then Charlie Parker is seen as young boy playing a wooden flute while riding on the back of a small pony being led to the shack where he lives with his family. The flute continues over the opening credits until a saxophone takes over, and now Parker is a teenager, Forest Whitaker’s younger brother Damon, playing on the porch of the same shack. During the rest of the credits Parker is heard playing “Lester Leaps In” with a jazz combo for an enthusiastic audience. And suddenly the camera pans right and the audience is in the club with Forest Whitaker onstage, as Parker in his prime. The group is Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet, with Samuel E. Wright as the trumpeter. And then suddenly a flying cymbal fades in and takes over the scene, and as it crashes to the floor the scene changes to Whitaker coming home a decade later to the apartment where he lives with his common law wife Chan, played by Diane Venora, and their two children. It’s an awkward scene, with Venora low key and resolute, while Whitaker is in a manic phase--having just walked out on his latest job. Of course she winds up crying, which seems to be Venora’s specialty as an actress. And Whitaker ends the night by drinking iodine and going to the hospital in an ambulance.
Lying in bed the next day, Whitaker flashes back to when he was a teenager, with Bill Cobbs as a doctor showing him a man who died from a drug overdose, saying that’s him if he doesn’t quit. Later his agent, Michael McGuire, pays a visit, and Whitaker has another flashback, this time of a jam session hosted by swing saxophonist Keith David, and again the cymbal flies through the air. When the doctor wants to give Whitaker electro shock, it’s Venora who flashes back to meeting Whitaker for the first time. Production designer Edward C. Carfagno does an excellent job re-creating 52nd Street in New York City circa 1945. When Keith David shows up he talks to Hamilton Camp about Whitaker, then David has a flashback about the jam session, where Damon Whitaker tried out his new stuff and the drummer wound up throwing the cymbal to the floor and humiliating him. When David returns from the flashback he goes inside to see Whitaker finishing “Lester Leaps In” from the opening of the film and his jaw drops because Whitaker is so far and away better than he’ll ever be. David eventually winds up on a bridge, despondent that the music has seemingly left him behind, and throws his saxophone in the water in disgust. Then Venora comes back from her flashback, tells the doctor no, and takes Whitaker home. And it’s still not even a half hour into the film.
Far from being confusing, the flashbacks are actually brilliantly conceived and executed. Forest Whitaker is not entirely convincing pretending to play the saxophone, but his slightly more animated version of Parker is incredibly enjoyable to watch. Diane Venora is an acquired taste, though Eastwood seems to love her, but then all of the actors, with the exception of Wright, probably played their characters a little broader than they really were. Despite the deficiencies of their individual performances, Whitaker and Venora work really well together, especially in bringing to life the slightly strange relationship between Parker and Chan. Samuel E. Wright does a nice job as Gillespie, and one of the set pieces of the film is the extended trip Whitaker takes to California as part of Dizzy’s group. The haunting series of telegrams that he sends back home to Venora after hearing of his daughter’s death is incredibly well done. But in terms of Parker’s front line partners it is Michael Zelniker as trumpet player Red Rodney who excels in a lengthy section of the film from a little later in Parker’s career, and their trip through the Deep South is particularly memorable. When all is said and done, Whitaker does finally deliver a solid performance as Charlie Parker, playing a man, in Stanley Crouch’s words, who couldn’t outrun his appetites.
The supporting cast is also great. In addition to Cobbs and David, are Jason Bernard as an expatriate trumpet player living in Paris, James Handy as the narcotics officer who is obsessed with putting Parker behind bars, Diane Salinger as the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a patron of sorts for the saxophonist, and Lou Cutell as an Hasidic Jewish father at a wedding reception. The screenplay by Oliansky, in addition to having a unique structure, is also incredibly well written. There are great lines throughout and the dialogue replicating the musician’s argot is believable. And one of the absolute delights about the screenplay for me personally is that Oliansky completely ignored the Miles Davis period altogether. Eastwood is masterful behind the camera, in his subtle way, letting the story tell itself rather than trying to be “artistic.” The director also made an important decision to use Parker’s real solos in the film, getting Lennie Niehaus to pull his music off the original records electronically and re-recording them with the best jazz musicians of the day--many of whom, like Ray Brown and Red Rodney, had actually played with Parker. As a result, the crew who did the sound design won the only Oscar awarded the film. Eastwood did take home the Golden Globe for best director, but then it’s no surprise that the foreign press certainly understands jazz and the kind of film Eastwood was making better than Americans. In the end, Charlie Parker will always be my favorite saxophonist, and Bird my favorite jazz film.