1980s, 2.5/4, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review

A Second Look at Bird

#27 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

Wow…it’s been a long time since I reviewed Bird, Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the jazz musician Charlie Parker. Revisiting it again for the first time in three years, I find that my overall opinion has not changed.

I would say that I’ve added a dimensions to my thoughts on the film, and that’s in large part due to watching it in the context of Clint Eastwood’s body of work as a film director. Throughout all of Eastwood’s work up to this point, the words that I used most consistently were “competent”, “professional”, and “workmanlike”. There’s obviously a directorial voice with thematic concerns working through a lot of it, but this is the first time that I’ve considered using the word “self-indulgent.” This feels like a work-print, the first amalgamation of footage that includes just about everything shot before things get whittled down to a more manageable length for public distribution.

I really get the sense that Eastwood, an obvious fan of jazz in general and Parker specifically, just fell in love with the script by Joel Oliansky that captured so much of the bygone era of the jazz scene in the 40s and early 50s. He wanted to see it all. I’m reminded of an interview with Paul Haggis talking about his experience with Eastwood on the making of Million Dollar Baby where Haggis was very happy to have Eastwood interested in his script, but Haggis wanted to go back and work more on it, insisting that it was just a first draft. Eastwood refused to allow any changes, insisting that what Haggis called flaws were part of what he loved about the script. I imagine that Eastwood approached the script for Bird in a similar way. He loved the expansive view of the era and personalities around Parker, but it ends up feeling like there’s no real story going on.

It’s just trying to capture as much of Parker’s life as possible without pushing it into the framework of storytelling. However, while that amorphousness is limiting, the film really is anchored by Forest Whitaker as Parker, and he’s really very good. Parker is a man who cannot find solace or peace considering the physical and psychological pain he’s in when he’s not playing music, searching for a numbing of his aches through women, talk, drugs, and alcohol in a constant descent until his death, leaving behind a body that the coroner thinks belongs to a sixty-five year old man instead of a thirty-four year old, as he was. Diane Venora has the largely thankless role as Chan Parker, who spends most of the film worrying about her husband’s self-destructive path, and she does everything she can with the limited role.

The parts of Parker’s story that I find the most interesting are the comparisons between him and two other musicians, Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel Wright) and Buster Franklin (Keith David). Gillespie is the more cool-headed manager who can keep his band together in contrast to Parker, and Buster is the one who recognizes rock ‘n roll, leaving jazz behind. Unfortunately, this stuff feels clipped really short in favor of the homestead material focusing on Chan and the family (mostly the death of their daughter). While that’s obviously hugely important to Parker, it lends itself to manifesting the issue with trying to capture the life of a complicated man in two to three hours: there simply isn’t enough time to get it all. You have to pick a lane, and then stick to it. Eastwood and Oliansky seemed more interested in capturing everything rather than just trying to capture something.

So, I’m still mixed on the film. I don’t feel the emotional weight of Parker’s death, but I still find the whole journey interesting. A lot of that has to do with Whitaker’s performance, but there’s also something to be said about the physical production that very well captures the look and feel of 1950s New York and Los Angeles. I don’t think it works overall, but it’s still something worth paying attention to, especially as what obviously seems to be Clint Eastwood’s first passion project as a film director.

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