Growing up in the '80s, Judge Victor Valdivia fantasized about being a self-destructive jazz musician. Sadly, not too many wore parachute pants.
"They're gonna talk about you when you're dead, Bird. More than they do
With Bird, director Clint Eastwood (Absolute Power) attempts to tell the story of one of the most influential and self-destructive musicians of the 20th century, Charlie "Bird" Parker (1920-1955). Unfortunately, Eastwood's directorial style proves to be at odds with the story he wants to tell. Eastwood understands Parker's talent, but anyone who watches Bird looking to understand Parker's humanity will not find enough of that here.
Facts of the Case
Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) emerges as the one of the most trailblazing jazz musicians of his time, almost single-handedly creating modern jazz with his extraordinary saxophone playing. He is also, unfortunately, every bit as self-destructive as he is talented, descending from a very early age into a hellish addiction to heroin and displaying an inability to commit to anyone and anything other than his music. His behavior makes life hell for his loving wife Chan (Diane Venora, Heat, his mentor Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright, The Little Mermaid), and his trumpet player and acolyte Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker, Naked Lunch), but his talent makes him the most sought-after and imitated sax player of his day, and his soaring solos earn him the nickname "Yardbird."
The fundamental disappointment about Bird is that it's not a film about Charlie Parker, but a film about the effect Charlie Parker had on the people around him. It's a peculiar biopic in that it's told from the point of view of everybody but its subject. This may have been an artistic choice on Eastwood's part, but it proves to be a miscalculation. Telling a story about an artist who did not express himself through words without finally giving him the chance to express himself through words is deeply unsatisfying. The film makes clear that Parker was a remarkable talent, and that people around him understood that he was a remarkable talent, but anyone hoping to gain some understanding of the actual man behind the talent will be sorely disappointed.
In fact, in far too many scenes, Parker winds up as the least well-developed character in the film. The real emotional heart of the film isn't Parker, but the supporting characters. There's Chan, the feisty, stubborn wife who loves him in her own way and who endures much heartbreak and sorrow as a result of his behavior. There's Red Rodney, whose awestruck adulation of Parker leads him to addiction and jail. There's Dizzy Gillespie, who hides his real emotions behind a smiling hipster façade that crumbles when he sees Parker squandering his life and talent. Each of these characters gets considerable time and effort to be developed, but Parker himself is a detached cipher. It's only towards the end, when a family tragedy brings home just how far Parker has gone into the deep end, that we finally get some insight into Parker's personality, but by then it's too little too late.
The film also wastes too much time on characters and stories that are only tangential to Parker's story. There's a running story with Esteves (James Handy, The Rocketeer), a corrupt cop who's always looking to shake Parker down. When this story does finally pay off, it does so in a way that really has little effect on Parker. It could have been left out for all that it adds to the film. There's also another scene, where rival sax player Chester Franklin (Keith David, They Live) visits a downtown club, realizes just how superior Parker is and decides to give up playing for good. The film takes a long time showing Franklin deciding to give up music by pulling his sax out of its case and throwing it off a bridge. Is this scene really necessary? As with Esteves' story, the payoff isn't worth the amount of time given to it. Why not spend this time showing us more of how Parker came up with his music?
It's possible that Eastwood may have been the wrong director for Bird. Eastwood specializes in spare, straightforward films about laconic, emotionally distant protagonists. With Bird, he's trying an experiment, with a fractured narrative that skips around chronologically about a fiery, self-destructive artist. But the decision to make Parker as reserved as, say, Harry Callahan, is a mistake. In Eastwood's previous film about a self-destructive musician, Honkytonk Man (1982), this choice worked because Red Stovall, that film's protagonist, made music that was just as laidback as he was. Here, it results in a film that sometimes feels strangely disjointed. One minute, Parker is fiercely alive onstage, blasting through his ferocious sax solos. The next, he's either not onscreen, or, when he is, not really saying much. The contrast is jarring. Add that to a story that isn't told in a linear fashion, and it becomes hard to get a grip on who Charlie Parker really was. For a biopic, that's a significant failing.
The technical aspects of the disc are mixed. Bird won an Oscar for Best Sound, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is indeed clear and sharp. It's not loud, but the surrounds are well-used for ambience, especially during the nightclub scenes. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, on the other hand, is murky, grainy, and riddled with scratches and dirt. Given that much of Bird takes place in smoky, dimly-lit rooms, it makes watching the film more of a chore than it should be. At various points, viewers will have to struggle to decipher who's speaking and what's going on.
If the visual transfer is a letdown, then the bonus content of this DVD is outrageous. Don't be fooled by the marketing of this as a "two-disc special edition," as the extras are shamefully meager. The film itself only includes the original theatrical trailer (1:47), an option to watch the film with only the music track and a few useless text extras. The second disc is nothing more than a six-song CD sampler of the Bird soundtrack. Viewers who care enough to buy this DVD will likely either 1) already own the soundtrack or 2) already own enough Parker recordings to surpass what's on this sampler. Either way, this disc is pointless. It's also worth noting that the Bird soundtrack is hugely controversial among jazz buffs. Eastwood and music producer Lennie Niehaus lifted Parker's solos from their original recordings and placed them in new songs with newly recorded backing tracks. Since these new backing tracks are so much cleaner and sometimes even tamer than the originals, the Bird soundtrack isn't nearly as representative of Parker's music as it's intended to be.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where Bird does go right is in the performances. Though Whitaker is the star, he unfortunately doesn't really get much to do until the last half hour or so, but when he is finally given the chance to cut loose, he delivers. Wright delivers the film's most searing monologue, towards the end, when he explains why he, unlike Parker, will always show up on time and do his best. Venora and Zelniker both get several moments to shine and use them to advantage. Characteristically, however, most of their best scenes occur when Parker is off-screen. This is not an indictment of Whitaker, but rather of Eastwood and the film's screenwriter, Joel Oliansky (Masada), who do Bird no favors by spending so much time on supporting characters at Parker's expense.
Only those who go in knowing absolutely nothing about Charlie Parker will get much out of Bird. Even they might wonder, given the film's superficial storytelling, just what the big deal was. Those who already know about Parker will gain no new insights into who he was and how he created his remarkable music. The film is made with Eastwood's usual craftsmanship, but it makes no effort to penetrate beneath the surface of Parker's life and music. Only the strength of the performances and a few scenes (few of which, significantly, actually involve Parker himself) make this of some minor value.
Bird is found guilty of adding little to our understanding of its subject. Warner Brothers is found guilty of slapping together one of the most worthless two-disc editions in recent memory.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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